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“Lady Day” Lives and Ushers in a New Normal

A thermometer, masks, hand sanitizer and a new normal for live theater… that is what audiences can expect from Cape Fear Regional Theatre’s production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

The year is 1959 and the location is Emerson’s Tavern, a dive bar in South Philly. It is here that legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday performed one of her last concerts just months before succumbing to complications from a drug and alcohol addiction. It is also the setting for Lanie Robertson’s bio-musical about Holiday, 

A stark contrast to CFRT’s last production, during which exultant theatergoers milled about the lobby shoulder-to-shoulder for photo ops, this production introduces strict new protocols.

CFRT Marketing Director Ashley Owen stops for a quick temperature check.

Walking up to the outdoor venue, an auto repair shop adjacent to CFRT’s 300-seat mainstage, it is clear that the theater is serious about its safety performance guidelines. After a quick temperature check, an usher working off a master list escorts each guest to their assigned seat. There are no tickets or paper programs changing hands, although a digital program is available on the website.

At the preview performance, seating was limited to 50 guests, which might be disconcerting to some due to recent, highly publicized, super spreader events. However, not only were seats comfortably spaced several feet apart, but responsive staff members also quickly addressed concerns and readily accommodated special requests.

The outdoor seating arrangement for CFRT’s production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”

The audience willingly observed the face covering mandate, but perhaps even more startling than that was the fact that Lady Day’s trio, which consisted of a drummer, pianist, and bass player, were also masked for the duration. In fact, the only person not wearing a mask was Janeta Jackson, who reprised the role of Billie Holiday. Jackson played the famous songstress once before during a pre-pandemic production in Charlotte.

Any trepidation Jackson may have felt initially here was quickly camouflaged by her meticulous phrasing and measured control leading up to an evocative performance of Strange Fruit. Director Gregory J. Horton disentangled Robertson’s unimaginative script by weeding through the fluff and zeroing in on the elements that feel most relevant and timely: policing, racial profiling, sexism, and social justice.

Holiday’s legacy is her music, and on that note, this production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill does not disappoint. It marks a valiant comeback for live theater in the Sandhills and serves as a beacon of hope during an uncertain time.

The Cape Fear Regional Theatre production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill runs through October 25th in Fayetteville. For more information visit https://www.cfrt.org/.

Tune in for a live chat with Janeta Jackson Monday night on the RDU on Stage Facebook Page. Visit the Triangle theater calendar for details.

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