In Baltimore's spotlight, the spirit of Billie Holiday Director stages love for Lady Day

March 28, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

The legend of Billie Holiday has touched the life of director George Faison on three occasions.

The first was during his boyhood in Washington, when he was helping his father with his awning business.

"I was working for my father, carrying ladders, and my mother came out of the kitchen and said, 'Billie Holiday's dead.' And they both stopped. She was like some kind of icon -- you don't really miss it until it's gone," Faison recalls.

The second came more than a dozen years later. By then Faison was an established dancer and choreographer in New York. He created a ballet about Billie Holiday called "Reflections of a Lady" for his company, the George Faison Universal Dance Experience.

His third experience is going on right now at Center Stage, where he is directing Lanie Robertson's "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," which opens Wednesday in the Head Theatre.

A one-woman biographical musical, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" takes place at an imaginary performance in a South Philadelphia club a few months before the 1959 death of the Baltimore-bred jazz singer, affectionately known as Lady Day.

The show has been widely produced since its off-Broadway debut in 1986. In fact, Faison directed it earlier this season in Winston-Salem, N.C.

But Faison -- whose choreography for "The Wiz" earned him the distinction of being the first black choreographer to receive a Tony Award -- wasn't content to merely re-create his Winston-Salem staging. With the help of set designer Christopher Barreca, he's trying something he believes has never been done with this show.

"It's going to be the setting that created, that spawned Billie Holiday," the former dancer said before a recent rehearsal.

Enthusiastically leading an interviewer on a tour of the Head Theater while the set was still under construction, Faison showed how the space was being converted into a working cabaret with full bar service. Theatergoers will sit at tables as though they were patrons at one of Holiday's club dates.

In turn, actress Pamela Isaacs, who is portraying Holiday, will occasionally step off the elevated nightclub stage -- which she shares with a four-piece jazz combo -- and move from table to table.

"It's going to give you chills when you walk in. . . . It's George's idea, and I think it's incredible," says Isaacs, who worked with Faison in a musical called "Betsey Brown," which he choreographed at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., in 1991.

Experimenting with innovative ideas in Baltimore is nothing new for 46-year-old Faison. His best-known credit, "The Wiz," had its world premiere at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in 1974.

His memories of that event are less than positive. After a disappointing opening, he recalls, "The general manager of the theater told [producer Ken] Harper he should close the show. Harper fainted dead away in the lobby of the hotel."

Of course, as theater history relates, "The Wiz" went on to become a multi-Tony Award-winning hit. Faison choreographed all three of its subsequent tours, and for the current one, which played at the Lyric Opera House last month, he also served as director.

A year ago he brought another premiere to the Lyric -- "Golden Gate," a gospel revue he conceived and staged. Despite high style, stunning choreography and top-notch singing, the show, which was planned to have a 10-week tour, shut down in Baltimore, unable to find the audience he had hoped for.

Instead, he found that audience in, of all places, France. "I've always heard the French are a very hard audience, [but] I've had a great deal of success," Faison says. In addition to "Golden Gate," the French have responded favorably to three incarnations of his revue of African-American music, "American Jam Session."

For a black man who describes his roots as the Washington ghetto, the worlds of theater and dance might seem a long stretch. Faison, who started performing with the former American Light Opera Company and dancing at Howard University while still in high school, admits that his parents' initial reaction was: "What are you doing with all these white people?"

Partly to appease them and partly out of a feeling that it might be a good idea to have a profession to fall back on, he entered Howard University to study dentistry. But after two years he was hired for a new dance company being formed in New York by Arthur Mitchell, who later went on to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Faison had been in New York only two weeks when Mitchell's plans for an African tour fell through due to lack of funds. "I couldn't go back to D.C. I had told too many lies," Faison jokes. "I was going to be a big star."

He won a scholarship with June Taylor and spent a few months studying and working with a Harlem dance and theater troupe. To make ends meet, he did odd jobs and cleaned houses. A year later, he was hired by Alvin Ailey, whose work had inspired him when he was a college student in Washington.

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