Years ago, I asked Dizzy Gillespie what he thought of how he was portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker film “Bird.” “Never saw it,” said Diz, though he could see that I was skeptical, and so added, “Either they got it wrong, and I would be mad as hell, or they got it right, and I would cry like a baby. Who needs either one?” In the case of Billie Holiday, the story that has been told for more than half a century “got it wrong” thanks to “Lady Sings the Blues,” a fictional, cannibalizing “autobiography” that she never read and which became an exploitive film after her death with a post-Supremes Diana Ross attempting to scream and cry her way to movie stardom. Lady Day deserved better, and thanks to Black Ensemble Theater founder and executive director Jackie Taylor’s brilliant new musical “Don’t Shed a Tear,” Lady Day gets her due at last. Yes, Holiday was a prostitute for a time, a drug addict, a convicted felon who spent a year in jail, but she also rose above the darkest depths of poverty, rejection, racism and sexism to become the greatest vocalist of all time, a fact that this play reminds us of constantly by having Vikki Omega Stokes offer an uncanny incarnation of Holiday’s singing voice as well as eerily approximating her speaking voice, complete with plenty of vintage vulgarianism that is tossed off with such humor and honesty that it never seems offensive. Taylor’s play doesn’t shrink from the deep, dark corners of Holiday’s often bleak journey, but it is ultimately the story of glorious art triumphing over those demons. It is the art, after all, that has the last word. (Dennis Polkow)
Don’t Shed a Tear: The Story of Billie Holiday runs at Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon; (773)769-4451. $40.