Two Artists Reunite in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Two Artists Reunite in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

By George Hatza

Philadelphia natives Amina Robinson and Ebony Pullum keep crossing paths, and those recurrent strokes of good fortune have served them well. The two thespians most recently connected to stage playwright Lanie Robertson’s niche musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill as part of Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s 32nd season.

PSF’s 2023 rendition is subtitled “Brave New Worlds.” So when the Festival’s artistic director Jason King Jones was asked how this poignant work—set during the final days of iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday’s life—fit into that context, he replied: “I wanted a big, diverse season with multiple opportunities to welcome new attendees to the Festival.”

After a perusal of this summer’s lineup, one would have to admit that Jones and his staff have succeeded in creating a season that boldly embraces the widest possible community outreach.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Jones pointed out, is the first musical in the Festival’s history to be performed in the cozy Schubert Theatre rather than on the more presentational Main Stage. That’s an artful decision, given that the play unfolds in a snug South Philadelphia jazz club in the 1950s.

This fortuitous choice has opened the door for the show’s director, Amina Robinson, to create a uniquely intimate environment, one in which the audience can experience an evening with Billie Holiday in something approaching real time. As such, Lady Day feels more like a play with music than what one normally would consider an outright Broadway musical.

Robinson became the first Black female director of a musical to win a Barrymore Award, honoring professional theater in and surrounding Philadelphia, for her acclaimed 2018 mounting of The Color Purple at Norristown’s Theatre Horizon. She was suggested to Jones by Festival veterans as a solid choice to direct the show. In turn, when Robinson accepted the offer, she recommended Ebony Pullum to play Billie Holiday.

Robinson and Pullum first met when the latter was 14 years old and a theater student at North Philadelphia’s historic Freedom Theatre, an institution celebrated for its exploration of African-American themes. Both artists performed there in Sparkle: The Musical.

Robinson—now a director, actor, and an assistant professor of acting and musical theater at Temple University—earned a B.A. in theater with a focus on acting and an M.F.A. in acting, both degrees from Temple. Among the accolades for her production of The Color Purple was a Barrymore Award for Pullum’s supporting performance as Shug Avery in the musical.

Robinson also coached Pullum for her role as Billie Holiday in a Florida production of Lady Day, the second time the actress played the part. Jones was thrilled with Robinson’s choice of Pullum, as he explained: “She will bring with her the great skill that comes with having played the character in addition to her grasp of the material.”

For Pullum, the chance to play Billie for a third time offers the opportunity for new discoveries, allowing her and Robinson to dig more deeply into character and nuance. As she called it, “playing” with the part.

“I can’t wait to hear Amina’s vision for approaching this,” Pullum said, her voice shimmering with excitement. “That sense of finding new things I hadn’t thought of before. It’s difficult to uncover actual video footage of Billie. So, in the past I listened to not only her songs but radio interviews to try to capture her speaking voice, her unusual vocal cadence. I love accents. I can mimic anyone.

“However, my goal is to find the mannerisms and specificity of what made her, her.”

For Robinson, Pullum’s ability to conjure the sound and physicality of Billie is just one part of the process.

“I love that Ebony can transform herself like that,” Robinson said. “But I’m more focused on the essence of Billie Holiday and the energy that Billie brought to the stage. The fact that Ebony has the speaking patterns and singing voice under her belt is terrific, but I want to focus on the feeling of watching this person on the stage.

“Yes, I’m going for the realism at the heart of Lady Day, the café-table route for the kind of immersive experience the play suggests. But I want it to succeed spiritually as well, to allow the audience to feel as if, ‘Wow! That felt like I was in the room with Billie Holiday.’ That’s the mood I’m after.”

Robinson peppers her comments with bursts of laughter. She exudes joy, but she no doubt comprehends the bleakness that lingers in the whiskey-scented atmosphere of Lady Day. Her Barrymore Award for unraveling the intricate sexual and racial themes of The Color Purple is proof of that.

Lady Day is set in March 1959, just four months before Holiday’s tragic death at age 44 from heart failure due to cirrhosis of the liver. That fact hangs over the play as if it were a shroud, prophesying the singer’s inexorable fate.

However, Robinson added, she hopes to be able to “add moments of magic as we move forward.” What else could one expect from an artist who sang and danced in Mamma Mia! and Godspell on Broadway? Indeed, Robinson’s resume is impressive, including the role of Jermaine in the award-winning 2009 film Precious and a recurring role in the Showtime dramedy Nurse Jackie (2009-2015).

She just completed her direction of the hit musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company this spring. In the fall, she will mount the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fat Ham—a quasi-comedic spin on the Bard’s Hamlet—at that city’s Wilma Theater.

Among her many regional-theater mountings is (her favorite playwright) Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation and the Re-Education of Undine at the Lantern Theater Company in Philadelphia, in which Pullum performed. And now the two are reunited once again for Lady Day, set in South Philly where both Robinson and Pullum reside.

Clearly, serendipity is at play.

Pullum fell in love with acting while watching The Cosby Show as a child. “I remember saying, ‘Mom, I can do that!’ when watching little Rudy on that show,” Pullum recalled.

As for Robinson, well, it took her some time to figure out exactly where she was headed.

“My interests were always shifting,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a writer because of all the typing. And when I realized that being a dancer wasn’t like it was in Fame, I learned I didn’t have the discipline. I played with the notion of being a newscaster, but I found it tedious. So, I just walked across the hall (at Temple University) to the theater department.

“I thought, ‘This will be the easiest thing in the world.’ And the rest is history.”