Playwright Dael Orlandersmith
At Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: GoodmanTheatre.org; 312-443-3800; $15-$45. Runs through: Nov. 18
Historical fiction typically recounts its chronicles from the vantage of a humble witness whose proximity coincidentally enables them to observeperhaps even participate inthe significant events under scrutiny.
The event in Dael Orlandersmith's solo play is the 1954 European tour of iconic jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, called "Lady Day" by her fansspecifically, an incident documented in her autobiography describing how, following a concert appearance in Copenhagen, Denmark, a local doctor and his teenage daughter invited her to their house for a post-show dinner, and how the welcome extended her by these "plain good people" was so different from the treatment of African-Americans in the United States.
All right, so a glimpse of domestic life in a foreign country, the celebrity status of the glimpser notwithstanding, may not represent an earth-shaking cataclysm, but to our narratorwhom we learn is the doctor's teenage daughter Helene, now a widow living in Andersonville, Chicago's gateway district for Scandinavian immigrantsthe multicultural implications are manifest. For her fellow Danes, chafing under the Nazi occupation, the music of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, whether captured on vinyl records or replicated by local bands in smoke-filled "underground" clubs, proclaimed a freedom as profound as that embraced by expatriate artists of color fleeing North American injustice.
For young Helene, too, Billie Holiday's pain, given voice in songs like "God Bless The Child" and "Strange Fruit," becomes a source of solaceespecially now, as our hostess pauses in the cleanup of what would have been an 80th birthday party for her beloved husband, who died a mere three weeks earlier ( after instructing his bereaved wife to continue with plans for the anniversary celebration ) to share her memories with us and look to her gardenia-bedecked and needle-scarred guardian angel for comfort in her loneliness.
As archeologists postulate entire civilizations on a minimum of physical evidence, so has Orlandersmith fabricated a fascinating ( if still in need of some tightening ) backstory, replete with wry humor and unflinching candor transcending racial boundaries. The only structural flaw in the text at its premiere is Helene's too-frequent bouts of melancholy over her recent loss. A woman who lives as fiercely as the one we have met deserves a better takeaway than a lingering farewell by a hospital bed and prognostications of a joyless future.