Yesterdays: An Evening with Billie Holiday
nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
February 19, 2011
“If I can’t feel it, I can’t sing it,” explains Vanessa Rubin as Billie Holiday toward the end of Reenie Upchurch’s Yesterdays: An Evening with Billie Holiday.
I don’t know if the real Billie Holiday actually said those words, but they go to the essence of Holiday’s greatness and explain the haunting effect evocations of her songs and style still have over fifty years after her death.
Yesterdays presents the story of Billie Holiday’s life as recalled by the singer on the occasion of her final performance in 1959, just months before her death at age forty-four. The nonlinear memoir, told in a meandering and recursive style by a Billie who is alternately sad, high, pugnacious, insouciant, and ingratiating, is punctuated and underscored by some twenty songs, many of them Holiday staples. Throughout the evening, we come to a more nuanced understanding of the woman: Rubin and Upchurch give us far more than just Holiday’s famous vulnerability. There’s humor and high spirit, a bit of vulgarity; strength, sassiness, and bewilderment.
Through it all, there is the music. Rubin’s voice is clear and powerful; her enunciation flawless. Diamonds sparkling at throat, bodice, and ears, and with Holiday’s signature gardenias perched in her hair, she takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster through the plaintive “Good Morning Heartache,” sly “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” sassy “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” hopeless “My Man,” hopeful “God Bless the Child,” and powerful “Strange Fruit,” among others. It may not be quite Lady Day’s voice, but the phrasing is there, along with warmth, power, and vibrancy. And the musicians who surround her—Levi Barcourt as Holiday’s long-suffering piano accompanist, Bernard Davis as her drummer and sometime lover, and David Jackson as the inscrutable and silent bass player—are first rate as well, both as musicians and actors. Davis in particular has a breakout moment when, deserted on stage by the diva, he must sing the song he wrote for her. The audience warms to his bashfully begun but heartfelt and building solo.
The story is told completely from the nightclub stage, beginning with the musicians arriving one by one and waiting for Billie; the intermission timed to an erratic midpoint departure; and the song order dictating and reflecting her increasingly fractured and sorrowful reminiscences. This device allows for much endearing interplay with the audience, as Billie teases and talks to the people in her “club.” It creates an immediacy and intimacy that help sustain our illusion of a resurrected Lady Day, come to entertain us for one more evening.
Everything in the piece is aimed at supporting Rubin, whose vocal talents and strong acting testify to the success of this approach. Woodie King Jr.’s direction is unobtrusive and smart, as is the lighting by Antoinette Tynes. Pervading all aspects of the play and its production is a strong sense of respect—a sense that was shared, at least at the performance I attended, by the audience. The diverse participants on both sides of the footlights were united across colors and ages in a shared enthusiasm for Billie Holiday, creating a very special feeling and evening.
Reenie Upchurch deserves much of the praise for creating this feeling. I know I was touched from the first when reading her note in the playbill, which says in part “I first met Billie Holiday when I was about 16 years old… I told her I wanted to be just like her. Billie replied, never in a billion years would I want to be like her. I didn’t understand that statement then but I would a couple years later at another Bar and Grill. Billie was staggering around the stage talking out of her head, trying to make a connection, laughing and crying sporadically. This time she looked right through me. It was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life…”
Through her play, Upchurch has given us a window into this bittersweet memory, allowing us, like her, like Billie, to feel it if not sing it.