A Life Well-Lived: Austin’s Zach Theatre Presents Lady Day

CHANEL as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. Photo by Kirk Tuck
Zach's center stage is masterfully transformed into a lounge, complete with glistening chandeliers and a working bar.

A large framed black and white poster of Billie Holiday was one of the few possessions that Louisiana native Chanel Haynes, the star of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill currently running on stage at Zach Theatre, was able to save from the devastating destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Twelve years later, Chanel has resurrected the musical spirit of the legendary Lady Day here in Austin. 

The photo was part of a collection of a Harlem-themed trio that the then 20-something college co-ed carried over the years. Little did Chanel know that her affection for Lady Day as a young lady would evolve and blossom into the intimate partnership now evident on Zach’s center stage.

“She gave me permission to tell her story,” Chanel said.  “Billie Holiday holds my hand every night. We are friends.”

Lady Day’s story unfolds as an accidental singing star following short, unsuccessful stints as a dancer and a call girl.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is essentially a reenactment of one of Holiday’s final performances toward the end of her life, a life that started with a challenging childhood followed by a rocky ascension to worldwide acclaim as a jazz singer. Holiday’s life all came crashing down around her after a losing battle with drugs and alcohol that held a vice-grip on her life and sadly ended with her being cast out from the entertainment scene. It is a tragicomedy life story of epic proportions.

Viewers are drawn into Lady Day’s persistent sense of humor even in the depth of her unimaginable pain and heartbreak. With the racist South as its backdrop, her story unfolds as an accidental singing star following short, unsuccessful stints as a dancer and a call girl.

Splicing biographical narratives with soul-stirring songs by Lady Day herself and a couple of her contemporaries, the one-woman show is a journey to 1959. Chanel shared that “a spoonful of peanut butter and a shot of whiskey” helps to transform her voice from a contemporary gospel singing style to the rich, mournful alto that generations of fans have come to associate with Lady Day.

Transitioning from gospel to jazz was easy for Chanel because both genres “draw from the same well: brokenness, love, fear, and love of God.” Her grandfather was a jazz musician and her father was a pastor, so both strains of music are in her blood.

Show director Michael Rader was committed to a full-immersion experience, as evidenced by the stage being masterfully transformed into a lounge, complete with glistening chandeliers and a working bar. Rader goes so far as to engage the audience into the performance by including a select few ticket holders as VIP club patrons who are seated directly on the stage with premium access to Lady Day, who often engages them in dialogue.

The title character’s progressing inebriation is evident as the show progresses. After a break strongly encouraged by Jimmy the Piano Man, played by Kris Keyz, she returns to the stage with Pepi, her adorable Schnauzer, much to the audience’s delight. Despite no formal acting or singing training, Chanel delivers a riveting performance that rivals any – on any stage.

Keyz, along with bassist Lannie Hilboldt and drummer Harrell Williams, create a musical foundation on which the star truly shines.

To prepare for the role of Lady Day, Chanel isolated herself, and talked to God. She also talked to Billie. She preferred no external interference in her inspiration: “I wanted a  direct hit,” says Chanel. People have told her that her voice has the same ability to transport them away from the present, which she considers high praise.

According to Chanel, the show affords both music and history connoisseurs a rare opportunity to witness first-hand the full accounting of the cost of being a legend during their own time. Holiday’s tragic end was the culmination of a childhood of abuse, a lifetime of rejection and insult as a Black performer in a racist nation, fiercely battling drug addiction, and suffering likely retribution from the powers that be for her refusal to stop using her voice as a weapon of resistance.

Chanel beautifully represented a woman who simply wanted what we all want: to love and be loved. 

Strange Fruit, one of her most well-known songs, was a tribute to the harrowing lynching of Black men and women across the South at the time. While no one was in a personal position to do it, the song ripped the mask off  of the Ku Klux Klan, and she was ordered to stop singing it. She refused. There are those who believe that her drug addiction was exploited by the white powerbrokers in her personal space to silence her and bring about her untimely end.

CHANEL HAYNES as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Holiday was raped at age 10, arrested for prostitution at age 14, and was so abused by her husband at one point that she performed the same day she suffered a broken rib from his violence. Her heavy drug use could be attributed to the fact that it served as an anesthesia to numb both the emotional and physical pain. Often, traveling overseas, fatigue from dramatic time zone changes were merciless.   “Audiences didn’t care. They wanted the energy and passion and excellence they came for,” Chanel said.

The full truth about Holiday’s drug addiction path may never be known, but some aspects of her life become abundantly clear in this production. While so many people get caught up in the glamour of celebrity and pursue all the flashy things that distract us, Chanel beautifully represented a woman who simply wanted what we all want: to love and be loved.  Her character explains that Billie Holiday longed for children she never had and simple pleasures, like being able to cook in her own kitchen for someone who was as in love with her as she was with them.

Chanel does make sure to caution against casting Billie Holiday as a helpless victim. Despite the barriers she faced, she truly lived life on her own terms, fighting for what she believed in and living life fully. There is a rumored story of her fighting two white men in an alley (in a fur coat, no less!) after they hurled a racial epithet her way – and she is alleged to have won the fight.

Come and see for yourself the final days of a life well-lived. You are sure to leave wanting to know more.


Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is on stage at Zach Theatre through April 30. Tickets start at $29 and are available online

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