Behind the Curtain: ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’ on stage now at Geva Theatre Center

Behind the Curtain: ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’ on stage now at Geva Theatre Center

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Geva Theatre Center’s 51st season continues this month with a story of strength, perseverance, and standing up for what you believe in. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is set in South Philadelphia in 1959. It tells the story of Billie Holiday’s life and trials, as the inimitable jazz singer delivers one of her final performances four months before her death.

The play affords a handful of audience members the rare, immersive opportunity to sit on-stage at bistro tables during the show, as if they’re inside an intimate, jazzy night club.

“You really feel like you’re in a cabaret with Billie Holiday,” said Director Jeffrey Page. ”This play really walks us through where she was, who she was, how she became who she was, step by step by step in song form.”

Lady Day

Lady Day

“The reason that Billie Holiday was in Philly … was because of this cabaret card,” said Page. Cabaret cards were used from the Prohibition era through the 1960s as a license of sorts for nightclub workers.

”It was a very racist practice in New York City at the time,” said Page. “Because really it was only for the Black people.”

Page is returning to Rochester and Geva after directing Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the theater last season. He’s an accomplished choreographer and director, winning an MTV Video Music Award, earning a nomination for an Emmy award, and working on Beyonce’s “The Formation World Tour,” among many other impressive feats. 

Taking on the role of Lady Day herself is Laurin Talese, who brings her powerhouse talent to Geva for the first time.

”I’ve been around a lot of singers you know, from Jazmine Sullivan to Beyonce … to all kinds of folks,” said Page. “Laurin Talese is one of the most talented singers that I have ever known.” Read more about Page and Talese here.

Talese embodies one of the most influential and distinguishable characters in jazz history. In Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Holiday recounts some of her past traumas, her loves, her struggles with substance abuse, her grandmother and great-grandmother, and more all through song. The audience will hear some of her most famous tunes like “God Bless The Child” and “Strange Fruit.” 

The play, which ran on Broadway, in London’s West End, and in theaters across the globe, was written by Lanie Robertson in the 1980s.

”I think people might walk away and say wow, you know, that Black woman is talking about Black things… baby, that was written by a white man!” said Page. ”What better way to speak about diversity, what better way to speak about fellow feeling then a play like this?”

Emily Putnam: “Why do this play now?”

Jeffrey Page: “We are experiencing a gross and egregious amount of racism that goes unchecked and very silent. And so the reason that this play is particularly important in this day is it reminds us that there has been an effort to stand up and stand proud for the things that you believe in for a very, very long time.”

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill runs through March 31 at Geva Theatre Center. Learn more and buy tickets here