Billie Holiday lives again through playWatching the off-Broadway production “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is like wandering through a light mist. At the end, your skin, your clothes, may be damp, but it was such a slow process it happened without you being aware of it.
The play is set in 1959, south Philadelphia, at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, where the legendary Billie Holiday is about to give the last performance of her life. Vocalist Kim Zombik casts an entrancing spell as she re-enacts a Holiday performance, backed up by Lloyd G. Mayers on piano, Paul Brown on bass and Clarence “Tootsie” Bean on drums.
Interplay, a music production company based in Korea, has booked “Lady Day” for performances in Korea from Dec. 1 to 5, tentatively slated to be held at Seoul Performing Art Hall in Mapo, central Seoul. Shin Won-kou, the director of Interplay, plans to re-create an intimate atmosphere for the performance in Korea.
Written by Lanie Robertson, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” premiered at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater in the mid-1980s to much acclaim and has been touring internationally. The Japan cast was in Seoul recently for a showcase performance at the jazz club Pablo in Cheongdam-dong, and appearances on music programs on MBC-TV, KBS-TV and EBS.
During the performance at Pablo, it was hard not to be hypnotized by Ms. Zombik’s voice, gestures and her tales of hardship, dreams, triumphs and downward spiral. Between songs such as “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child,” “Where Our Love Has Gone” and “Nobody’s Business if I Do,” she pours out searing stories about racism, love, dysfunctional relationships, substance abuse and jail time, laced with moments of humor.
You can’t help but fall a little bit in love Ms. Holiday, who recorded her first album in 1933 at the age of 18. She died in 1959 at the age of 44 after battling heroin and alcohol addictions.
Earlier this year in Japan, Ms. Zombik, also known as Lady Kim, recorded a jazz album, “Left Alone,” with the band from the play. Sony Music Korea plans to release “Left Alone” in a few weeks.
In addition to playing the piano for “Billie Holiday,” Mr. Mayers takes on the role of Jimmy Powers, Ms. Holiday’s last love. Mr. Mayers has played with Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae and was chosen by Duke Ellington’s sister, Ruth, to take over piano chair in the Duke Ellington Orchestra after Ellington’s death.
Audience members at the show at Pablo included Ha Jong-wook, music director of the TV program “EBS Space,” and the jazz critics Hwang Duck-ho and Kim Gwang-hyun.
Here are some excerpts from a Q&A session that followed the performance:
Hwang Duck-ho: The music was beautiful, the acting was beautiful. Billie Holiday left the world a long time ago. We’ve never had a chance to see her. What type of person was she?
Zombik: I think it’s always hard to answer that. She had a drug addiction and personal stress. We listen to her music and we can feel what she’s about.
Hwang: What does the play mean?
Zombik: I didn’t write it, but what do you feel from it? Tremendous. It’s sad, it’s funny, it’s poignant. If you can keep in mind with all this pain and sorrow came this diamond, you can enjoy it.
Hwang: I heard this was based on real events. How much of this is real, and how much of it is fiction? The last song, “Deep Song,” I’ve never heard on a record. Did Holiday really sing it?
Lloyd Mayor: From what I understand, Billie Holiday sang that song. As it’s the last number [in this production], the manager dresses it up.
Zombik: In terms of the play, how much of it is real, and how much of it is not real? ... Billie Holiday lied about her life. Do we believe everything she said?
Ha Jong-wook: I’m a big fan of Billie Holiday. No one here has ever had the opportunity to meet her, or even visit Emerson’s Bar & Grill. But I felt like I was transported to Emerson’s Bar & Grill and watching Billie Holiday herself. You even have Holiday’s accent and act drunk.
When the auditions were held, you were chosen out of more then 300 people. How did you research to take on that role?
Zombik: I started to be interested [in Billie Holiday] when I was 17. I saw the documentary “The Long Night of Lady Day” when I was 19. You look at it, you look at it again, and again. How does her face move, how does she move her arm? I practiced my lines outside when it was cold. Your face freezes.
IHT-JAD: What was the most difficult thing about taking on Holiday’s persona?
Zombik: It’s hard to make a connection with the amount of anger she felt. At the age of 44, which is just around the corner for me, she killed herself on booze and anger. To put yourself in that place...
Kim Gwang-hyun: How do you separate being yourself from being Billie Holiday?
Zombik: It’s not very, very hard because I’m not really drunk and I’m not really high. The biggest residue is in terms of here’s Billie and here’s myself. I need to distance myself from all that poignant feeling and all that sadness.
by Joe Yonghee
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