The play, by Lanie Robertson and directed by Warren Wills, is set in a small bar in Philadelphia in 1959 — the last year of singer Billie Holiday's life.
Nicknamed "Lady Day," Holiday was one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, and is played at the New End by Dawn Hope, star of Ain't Misbehavin' and Chicago.
According to Lady Day, Holiday's brief life (she was in her forties when she died) was plagued by childhood poverty, sexual abuse, drugs and a catastrophic marriage which led directly to a jail term.
At a time when black performers are more integrated into the West End scene than ever before — and not just in primarily African shows like Umoja or the recent multi-ethnic Mysteries but at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, in Chicago and at the Donmar's Divas, from The Full Monty, through Kiss Me, Kate to The Mikado — it's genuinely shocking to hear Dawn Hope, as Billie Holiday, give examples of her having to eat in the kitchen of southern restaurants (accompanied by the members of the all-white band she sang with) and, even more so, that she had to wait outside until her numbers came up during performances, so as not to sit with the white band onstage.
Songs can recount experiences like these even more effectively than words, as Lady Day reminds us, and the most vivid — and moving — part of the evening is when she sings an extraordinary ballad about racism in the Deep South, called "Strange Fruit." Racism was, however, only one of the burdens Billie Holiday labored under during her brief but amazingly talented career. As this 90-minute two-hander (Warren Wills plays her pianist) reminds us, the home lives of great singers are rarely all roses.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow