Billie Holiday was dead at the age of 44. Had Lady Day moved to Europe like Nina Simone, Dexter Gordon and so many of her other peers, would her life story have had a different ending?
That’s certainly the opinion of Helene, the titular Lady in Denmark in playwright Dael Orlandersmith’s new one-character play of the same name. Helene, who is performed in this Goodman Theatre world premiere by the very capable Linda Gehringer, is a fictional creation, albeit with a basis in Holiday’s biography. In her 1956 autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” Holiday writes of her rapturous reception in Copenhagen on her 1954 European tour, a monthlong, 60-city voyage ending in London’s Royal Albert Hall. She specifically mentions meeting a Danish doctor and his 12-year-old daughter at the airport: “They spoke English, not too good, but I could understand them. They told me how they loved me. Had every record I had ever made.”
Suffering from a cold, Holiday — who did not make friends easily — ended up going to the fans’ home for care and medicine, something she wrote would have been unimaginable in the United States: “If something like this happened at La Guardia people would say I am crazy.”
Orlandersmith’s play takes Holiday’s documented visit to a Danish home and imagines the future life of the 12-year-old girl in the story, very reasonably assuming this child of a jazz-loving home in postwar Copenhagen became a lifelong Billie Holiday fan, which would make her eventual emigration to the United States more likely. Chicago — home of the Green Mill and all that — would surely have been an attractive destination.
And thus “Lady in Denmark,” which opened Monday night, consists of Helene addressing the audience from designer Andrew Boyce’s Prairie-influenced take on her home in Andersonville, the famously livable neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side with its proud, if less and less visible, Scandinavian heritage.
Riffing on a small scene in a work of nonfiction is a fine way to start a play — Tom Stoppard started his “Rock ‘N’ Roll” that way. And this piece does a service by exploring the difference in how great African-American artists were treated in Europe in the first decades of the 20th century, in some cases literally saving their lives. I’m often struck by how many young people in Chicago have no idea of this history, not least because it does not fit into the usual binaries. And thus for Orlandersmith, a distinguished oral historian, to pay tribute in this way to an ordinary Danish family that cared for Holiday is generous, unifying and moving.
The main issue with the show at this juncture is that you are listening to one long monologue told almost entirely in the past tense — and that is not always as dramatic as it could be. It’s not easy to grab hold of what is at stake in the present moment, what catharsis we may all experience together.
Orlandersmith, who works here with the director Chay Yew, has imagined the woman late in her life, following hard on the death of her husband, and the sections of the show that deal with pain and loss are very richly written. Still, it seems to me that “Lady in Denmark” is a fine idea that has yet to be fully theatricalized.
I don’t know what rights issues might have been solved here, but there’s no question that Holiday’s music is insufficiently present. There are so many ways, both dramaturgical and technological, in which Holiday’s music and biography could be better worked into a show that could and should be a tribute to the relationship between a great artist and fans from across the water who understood what those nearer home often failed to see.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Lady in Denmark” (2.5 stars)
When: Through Nov. 18
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Tickets: $15-$45 at 312-443-3800 or www.goodmantheatre.org