“Them that’s got will get/Them that’s not will lose ...” Billie Holiday in all her lyric glory, and all her degradation, has been subject for more than a few portrayals over the years.
The movies she was in herself and performance footage can be compared to any, including the most widely seen, and off-key, Diana Ross vehicle, Lady Sings the Blues (better for Richard Prior’s portrayal of her accompanist).
But, whether on screen or live onstage, each show faces the same problem: how to portray Holiday’s inimitable voice and manner, as well as how to present her sad, scandal-ridden life.
Lady Day in Love, C. J. Verburg’s play presented by the Fellowship Theater Guild at the Fellowship Church in San Francisco, neatly skirts the moralisms that start piling up at any survey of Holiday’s history by referring to incident and anecdote mainly to place the characters in their setting, to give a touch of backstory. All the action takes place at a rehearsal in New York sometime in the ‘40s, and at a club date a few years later.
And the difficulty of portraying Billie the singer and the woman has been taken solved by the presence of vocalist Kim Nalley (who’s also proprietor of Jazz At Pearl’s in North Beach), who not only sings 15 of Lady Day’s numbers wonderfully, but manages to convey something of the sense of her character, by turns demure and tough, as much through suggestion as through any kind of overly studied scheme.
This kind of Impressionism lends a subtle radiance to a play of vignettes, involving just three dramatic characters, directed by Courtney Brown. The truly original hook is to have the action (Billie’s romantic attachment to Harlem-to-Paris wandering club promoter Jimmy Monroe, ably portrayed by Ed L. Gillies III) framed by her mother, Sadie Fagan (played wonderfully by Lady SunRise, “The Jazz Angel”), who’s skeptical about Jimmy’s intentions, due to her own failed marriage to a roving jazzman—a good part of the cause of her daughter’s woes.
“My, oh my, we had some good times in Baltimore!” Sadie enthuses.
“And some bad times,” counters Billie. “They sent me to the reformatory. I got raped.”
Sadie, dubbed The Duchess by tenor titan Lester Young, as he named Billie Lady Day (and Billie called him Prez, president of the saxophone), introduces herself by the title to Jimmy when he shows at Billie’s rehearsal: “She’s a Lady, so I got to be a Duchess. That’s what Lester Young say.”
And so Jimmy kisses her hand and gives his name as Winston Churchill. Back in the Big Apple since the War cut short his self-lauded Paris peregrination, he’s pursuing Billie despite The Duchess’
Sadie’s not exactly a welcome stage mother or moralizer.
“She might be a Catholic, but she sure as hell ain’t no saint,” her daughter informs Jimmy on the sly. Jimmy makes it a point to charm The Duchess; a high point of the play’s reached when Kim belts out “Give me a pigfoot/And a bottle of beer” as Jimmy and Sadie dance, arm in arm, then facing each other and getting down, while Billie struts, flanking them.
The second act, in the club, is introduced by Sadie, speaking to the audience, resplendent in silver lame’ turban and pearl gray gown. It gradually comes out she’s speaking from the other world. When Billie comes onstage, a little bit unsteadily, she tells the audience she still keeps a table reserved for her mother. Sadie’s told the audience of her slide with Jimmy into addiction. Jimmy, now her estranged husband, stumbles in, the only one who can see The Duchess, whom he accosts.
“I can sing in Carnegie Hall. I can sing in a kid’s show. But I can’t sing where they serve juice. How ‘bout that?” Billie Holiday’s glory and decline have seldom been shown so directly or with as much humanity.
It’s a straightforward show with as many twists and turns as Billie’s tragic life. And then there are the songs. Kim Nalley shows Billie’s range, as well as her own (and she’ll be singing Nina Simone’s music soon at Yoshi’s).
The other stars of the show have few lines, but underpin the heart of the play: Kim’s own faithful accompanist, T. Hall, playing Billie’s pianist Bobby, and, in the club scenes, Ned Boynton (oft of Downtown Restaurant) on guitar and bassist Dana Stevens sitting in.
There are more than a few moments it’s easy to see why, according to Randy Weston, that the only ornament in Thelonious Monk’s spartan practice room was a photo of Lady Day on the ceiling, where he could look up to her as he played.
LADY DAY IN LOVE
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 12. $33. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111.
Fellowship Theater Guild, 2041 Larkin St., San Francisco. For more information, call (415) 305-3243.