Iyona Blake has become a powerhouse performer at Falls Church’s Creative Cauldron theatre, almost as legendary in her local showcase here as Billie Holiday was on her national platform as her tragically short but culturally transformative career as a jazz and blues singer that ran from 1933 to her untimely death at age 44 in 1959.
Blake reprises the incomparable Holiday, aka Lady Day, in her current show at the Cauldon, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a largely one-person show (with Mark Meadows as her piano accompanist and his band) where her own considerable vocal talent channels Lady Day through 16 songs and a heart-wrenching monologue before an imagined audience at a dive in Philly, ostensibly in one of her final performances before her death a couple of months later.
In both the songs and the monologue, Blake conveys the inner soul of one of the greatest American performers of the 20th century. A singer whose life was perennially dogged by the acute racism of her era and her own struggles with substance abuse, encouraged by a succession of drug addicted husbands.
Blake is a Helen Hayes Award winning actor and soprano, who won the honor in her role as Caroline Thibodeaux in the Tony Kushner Tony-nominated Broadway musical, “Caroline of Change” performed at the Cauldron in 2016. At the Cauldron, she’s taken on “Blues in the Night,” “The Wizard of Oz,””Once on This Island,” “Shout! The Mod Musical” and “Thunder Knocking on the Door,” as well as other major roles around the region. She’ll undoubtedly and deservedly be rewarded for her current show, where in addition to her singing, her acting skills require a steady, painful descent into inebriation, presented as a harbinger of her imminent final demise as devised by another Cauldron award-winning stalwart, director Matt Conner.
In the program notes, Nat Hentoff, the Downbeat Magazine critic described Billie Holiday’s voice as “steel-edged and yet soft inside; a voice that was almost unbearably wise in disillusion and yet still childlike.” Continuing to make recordings after a 10-month federal prison term for drug possession in the late 1940s, “her voice had become rougher, more vulnerable,” according to the notes excerpted from Legacy.com, “while still retaining the raw intensity she was known for…the fragility of her voice only gave her world-weary blues more emotional resonance.”
The show is long (1 hr. 45 min.) for not having an intermission, but it requires the length for Lady Day’s full story to be told, along with the incredibly entertaining songs, ranging from the historically defiant “Strange Fruit” written by Lewis Allan, an homage to the racist lynchings she’d personally witnessed in her youth, to “God Bless the Child,” she wrote herself and the legendary Bessie Smith’s “Baby Doll,” and much more.
The corporate sponsor of the show is Diener and Associates, CPAs.
A special performance to benefit Falls Church’s Tinner Hill Foundation during Black History Month is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 25. Otherwise, there will be performances through March 4.