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Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Palm Beach Dramaworks concludes its fifteenth anniversary season with Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a moving and surprisingly joyous look back at the too-short, turbulent life of the legendary Billie Holiday. Lady Day opens at the Don & Ann Brown Theatre on May 15 – June 7, 2015 with specially priced previews on May 13th and 14th. 

April 7th marked the centennial of Holiday’s birth; she died at the age of 44 in 1959. The play is inspired by a performance she gave before a very small audience in a Philadelphia club (not named Emerson’s Bar & Grill) just four months before her death. Robertson heard about the performance through a friend and used it as the impetus for a piece in which Lady Day, a nickname given to Holiday by the great saxophonist Lester Young, intertwines more than a dozen songs with her harrowing life story. She was, by then, a shell of her former self, her vocal skills diminished due to too many years of heroin and alcohol abuse. But despite her vocal shortcomings, her connection to her music and to her audience never wavered.  

Among the songs heard in the show are “God Bless the Child” (which she co-wrote), “Crazy He Calls Me,” “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” and “Strange Fruit,” a powerful protest song about lynching.   

Lady Day premiered at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in April,1986, with Reenie Upchurch as Billie. The show opened off-Broadway two months later at the Vineyard Theatre, and moved to the Westside Arts Theatre in September. Lonette McKee played Billie for most of the run; she was succeeded by S. Epatha Merkerson, who would return to the role in October, 1987 in Los Angeles. Lady Day had its Broadway premiere in April, 2014, when Audra McDonald took on the role at Circle in the Square. The scheduled 10-week run was extended three times.     

Lanie Robertson’s plays include the bio-dramas Nasty Little Secrets, about the playwright Joe Orton, who was murdered; Alfred Stieglitz Loves O’Keeffe; Woman Before a Glass, about socialite and art collector Peggy Guggenheim; and The Gardener, about the friendship between Claude Monet and Georges Clemenceau. His work has been produced nationally and internationally at such venues as the Alley Theatre, Arena Stage, Delaware Theatre, the Edinburgh Festival, Festival d’Avignon, George Street Playhouse, the Kennedy Center, the Old Globe Theatre, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Playwrights Horizons, Primary Stages, Théâtre de la Huchette, Théâtre Petit Montparnasse, Théâtre Silvia Montfort, Vineyard Theatre, Virginia Stage, Walnut Street Theatre, the Westside Arts Theatre, and Williamstown Theatre Festival. Robertson is a member of the Dramatists Guild; Writers Guild, East; and the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques. 

Palm Beach Drama Works’ production is directed by J. Barry Lewis, and features Tracey Conyer Lee as Billie and Brian Whitted, who is also the show’s music director, as her pianist, Jimmy Powers. Phil McArthur is the bassist. Scenic design is by Jeff Cowie, costume design is by Leslye Menshouse, lighting design is by Kirk Bookman, and sound design is by Richard Szczublewski. 

Palm Beach Dramaworks is a professional, not-for-profit theatre company hiring local and non-local Equity and non-Equity actors and actresses. Their goal is to engage and entertains audiences with provocative and timeless productions that personally impact each individual.  The theatre is located at 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, FL 33401. For information you can reach them by phone at 561-514-4042561-514-4042, 561-514-4042561-514-4042, or online at