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Vanguard Theater presents "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"

originally published: 11/17/2023

Vanguard Theater presents "Lady Day at Emerson

(MONTCLAIR, NJ) -- To kick off their third Mainstage season in Montclair, Vanguard Theater Company (VTC) presents the Tony Award-winning musical play, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Vanguard Theater will be transformed into Emerson's, a seedy bar in South Philadelphia. Guests will be up close and personal, seated just a few short steps from the music and the history, to take in every word and note of this intimate portrait of the celebrated Lady Day. The production runs Thursdays through Sundays from November 30 through December 17, 2023.

Portraying one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill paints a portrait of a tortured yet brilliant Billie Holiday. Set in March of 1959 Holiday is performing in a derelict bar, and unbeknownst to her audience, they are witnesses to one of the last performances of her lifetime. Through her poignant voice and moving songs including “What a Moonlight Can Do,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “Easy Living,” “Strange Fruit,” “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” and “God Bless the Child”, Holiday shares her loves and her losses through salty, often humorous reminiscences; while becoming increasingly intoxicated and incoherent. Variety has described Lady Day as “Far from a simple songbook...the cumulative power comes in the unraveling of an addicted artist and her story at the end of her days.”

“The plot of Lady Day weaves a seamless story of substance abuse, race, gender, and identity politics through the complexity of living with and overcoming trauma,” says VTC Founding Artistic Director Janeece Freeman Clark. “Generational trauma shaped a culture that took an enormous toll on Billie Holiday. She sought and found freedom and eternal salvation in music. Four months after the action of the play, Billie Holliday would die of cirrhosis and heart failure in a Harlem hospital.”

Written by acclaimed playwright Lanie Robertson with musical arrangements by Danny Holgate, Janeece Freeman Clark is delighted to direct this Tony Award-winning Broadway play with music. Freeman Clark is fresh from her triumphant direction of When We Get There at the York Theatre in NY, and Spring Awakening at VTC. Actor, Director, and Playwright Tracey Conyer Lee, who has played the role of the late, legendary chanteuse across the country, makes her theatrical debut on the Vanguard Theater stage. Boston Globe says "Lee so closely channels the legendary songstress...she recreates a powerful one-woman show as the embodiment of Lady Day." Lee is a recipient of Carbonell, NAACP, and Barrymore Awards. Darnell White plays Billie’s accompanist, Jimmy Powers, and also serves as the Music Director. Set Designer Eric Marchetta, Costume Designer Terrell Jordan Jenkins, Lighting Designer David Heguy, and Production Stage Manager Michaella Craver round off the production’s team.

Opening November 30th, this three-week run goes through December 17th with performances at 8:00pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and 1:00pm & 7:00pm on Sundays. Tickets start at $25. There is a $25 food and drink minimum for all Floor Premium and Floor seating at tables. A delicious soul food menu will be served. Tickets start at $25 and are available for purchase online or by emailing Group sales are also available at discounted rates. Recommended for ages 13+

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Vanguard Theater Company’s run of Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill marks Ms. Lee’s 8th production playing the role of Billie Holiday. Conyer Lee’s other acting highlights include original off-Broadway casts of Sistas, The Musical and Bedbugs!!! It’s a Musical as well as Carbonell, NAACP, and Barrymore Award winning work at regional theaters including Yale Rep, Baltimore Centerstage, Denver Center, Pittsburgh Public, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Portland Stage, Actors Theatre of Louisville, St. Louis Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Theatre of the Stars, Detroit Public Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, TheatreWorks, Delaware Theatre Co, Westport Playhouse, Merrimack Rep, Virginia Stage, Ogunquit Playhouse, Great Lakes, Cleveland Playhouse, Palm Beach Dramaworks, Pittsburgh CLO, Syracuse Stage, InterAct, Bucks County Playhouse, Weston Playhouse, national and international tours totaling more than 75+ productions.

Onscreen highlights include roles on “The Path”, “SMASH”, “L&O: Criminal Intent”, “Ed”, “All My Children”, and “Guiding Light”. Also a playwright, Ms. Lee’s plays have received development or production in New York, Boston, DC, Vermont and Chicago. Two of Conyer Lee’s plays, Rabbit Summer and Retreat, are in production in Chicago and New York, respectively.

Vanguard Theater has been lauded and awarded for its commitment to changing social and cultural narratives through theater. By bringing equity to the stage, telling relatable stories, and making theater financially accessible, VTC has quickly become a destination for great professional theater, with diverse voices, inspired community collaborations, excellent youth programming, and more.

In keeping with their mission and practice, VTC is partnering with area Jack & Jill Chapters with an inaugural, by invitation only, Black Women’s Theater Night, Out Montclair, Montclair/Bloomfield/Glen Ridge Kiwanis Club, Friends of the Howe House, Montclair African American Heritage Foundation, Cicely Tyson School of the Arts, Center for Social Justice/Montclair High School, Lifelong Montclair. and Jazz House Montclair. VTC extends thanks to the sponsors who have made this production, and our season, possible. Honorary producers for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill are Midnight Theatricals.

Founded in 2015, Vanguard Theater Company is a 501(c)(3) committed to changing social and cultural narratives through theater dedicated to DREAM: Diversity, Reciprocity, Education, Activism & Mentorship. Founded to address the lack of true diversity in theater casting, training, producing, administration, creative teams, and audience, VTC brings equity to the stage, telling relatable stories, and making theater financially accessible. Located in Montclair's 4th Ward, historically the town’s most diverse neighborhood, Vanguard Theater has quickly become a destination for great professional theater, with diverse voices, inspired community collaborations, excellent youth programming, and more.

In 2023, VTC was hand-selected to receive a generous award from Michael Jordan and Jordan Brand’s Community Grant Program, an initiative of its Black Community Commitment (BCC), created in 2020. Grants were awarded to 48 grassroots, non-profit organizations that are driving action and leading sustainable solutions to improve Black lives in their neighborhoods. Vanguard Theater, with a local connection to the initiative’s four key focus areas of economic justice, education, narrative change, and social justice was the only recipient in New Jersey - and one of only two theater companies.

New Jersey Monthly has noted that Vanguard is shaking up social and cultural narratives. Reviewers have called Vanguard’s productions “an exhilarating experience”, and “Montclair’s best-kept secret” bringing Broadway flair West of the Hudson.

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VTC looks forward to continuing its reputation for excellent theater and impactful community dialogue in its third full season in Montclair, NJ.



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