Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Lady Day, in a bar, with a band

Deidrie Henry is terrific as the great Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," a musical bio that isn't quite fish or fowl

Near the beginning of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which opened last Friday at Portland Center Stage, Deidrie Henry, portraying the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, ascends a staircase in the middle of the stage, wearing an elegant white dress, long white silk gloves and a black fur coat, moving slowly, wearily, like an apparition with bad knees. She coughs. Then, still pushing up the last steps, she begins to sing: “All I know is that I love you…”

A couple of hours later, the opening-night party was well under way in the Armory’s second-floor lobby as Henry ascended another staircase. Before she could wade into the crowd, the entire place seemed to turn toward her at once and break into a fresh round of applause, even after the standing ovation at show’s end. All they knew — or at least one salient thing they knew — was that they loved her.

Deidrie Henry, up close and personal. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

And that’s as it should be. Henry is a well-traveled actor familiar to Northwest audiences from a handful of seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and previous shows at PCS. Her performance here is strong, polished, nuanced, affecting, pretty darn hard not to love. She expresses a variety of facets of what we might expect Billie Holiday’s character and affect to have been — by turns charming, willful, sarcastic, aggrieved, flirtatious, caustically funny, melancholy, tired, sick, and both emotionally and pharmacologically messed up. Her singing is rich, warm, expressive.

Continues…

DramaWatch Weekly: home run

Bobby Bermea finds the key to "Fences." Plus: Lady Day at Emerson's, Tim Stapleton's art, bubble-bath theater, openings and closings.

Gabriel, blow your horn!

Portland’s theater makers are a supportive lot, so it was no surprise that several prominent actors were in the audience at Portland Playhouse on the night last week that I went to see the current production of Fences. But I didn’t expect, necessarily, to see Michelle Mariana, Brenda Hubbard and Jeff Gorman – who’d sat together in the front row – clustered on the sidewalk after the show, asking the same question I was asking: “Which door is Bobby going to come out of?”

For my part, I’d come to the show specifically to see what Bobby Bermea and director Lou Bellamy had done with a seemingly small yet, to my mind, crucial role in August Wilson’s most celebrated drama. But I wasn’t the only one to come away powerfully struck by his performance.

(Disclosure: Bermea, in addition to a busy career as an actor and director, is a contributing writer for Oregon ArtsWatch, and he and I served together a few years ago on the Drammy Awards committee.)

Bobby Bermea (left) as Gabriel and Lester Purry as Troy in “Fences.” Photo: Brud Giles

Fences was Wilson’s “I’ll show them” play, the one in which he departed from his usual discursive, multivalent approach and proved he could write a more conventionally structured drama with a singular focus, something more akin to the classic “well-made play.” The story is about the towering, often glowering figure at its center, a former Negro Leagues baseball star named Troy Maxson, and the other characters exist as bodies in his orbit, the narrative’s several lines of tension pulsing between each of them and him, the hub of the wheel. In terms of action, what’s going on is mostly between Troy and his son Cory, who wants to play college football, despite his father’s bitterness about how his own opportunities were limited.  Or between Troy and his wife, Rose, who eventually laments not making the big man leave room for her wants and needs. Or between Troy and his longtime friend Jim Bono, who slips from admiration to concern to sad resignation as his hero self-destructs. Or …

Continues…