Behind the Curtain: “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” on stage now at Geva Theater Center

ROCHESTER, NY – 51 from Geva Theater Centerst The 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 the life and trials of Billie Holiday, as the inimitable jazz singer delivers one of her final performances four months before her death.

The play offers a handful of audience members the rare and immersive opportunity to sit on stage at bistro tables during the show, as if they were in an intimate, jazzy nightclub.

“It really feels like you’re in a cabaret with Billie Holiday,” said director Jeffrey Page. “This piece really tells us where she was, who she was, how she became who she was, step by step in song form.”

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

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

Page returns to Rochester and Geva after directing There is no such thing as bad behavior in the theater last season. He’s an accomplished choreographer and director, having won an MTV Video Music Award, been nominated for an Emmy Award, and worked on Beyoncé’s “The Formation World Tour,” among many other impressive feats.

Laurin Talese takes on the role of Lady Day herself, bringing her powerful talent to Geva for the first time.

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

Talese embodies one of the most influential and memorable figures in jazz history. In Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Holiday recounts some of her past traumas, her loves, her struggles with drug addiction, her grandmother and great-grandmother, and much more, through song. The audience will hear some of his most famous songs like “God Bless The Child” and “Strange Fruit”.

The play, which has been performed on Broadway, London’s West End and in theaters around the world, was written by Lanie Robertson in the 1980s.

“I think people might walk away and say wow, you know, this black woman is talking about black things… baby, that was written by a white man!” Page said. “What better way to talk about diversity, what better way to talk about feelings of camaraderie than a piece like this?”

Émilie Putnam: “Why is this playing now?”

Jeffrey Page: “We are facing blatant and blatant racism, unchecked and very quiet. And so the reason this piece is particularly important on this day is because it reminds us that there has been an effort to stand up and be proud of the things that you have believed in for a long, long time.

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

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