Thomasina Petrus uncannily captures the very sound of Billie Holiday (1915-1959), a singer who looms as one of the jazz world’s most unique, in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at the Jungle Theater. Playwright Lanie Robertson matches the words she has written for the text with several beloved Holiday tunes including God Bless the Child and the haunting Strange Fruit which reflects the lynching of blacks during the Jim Crow Era. Most of the dialogue is spoken by Holiday in the final year of her life on the Emerson stage setting in Philadelphia. At age 44 she reflects on painful events of her life, from incarceration to abuse. Accounts of racism permeate throughout.
This psychic anguish is layered on with Holiday’s own deterioration from chronic drug abuse. Petrus goes to an inner space of profound despair and mixes the darkness with biting sardonic humor. Robertson has conceived the legend on a downward spiral from start to finish. This demands that the role is played at a prolonged psychologically negative pitch.
Facing such a challenge, the masterful Petrus beguiles in every moment. In the process the case is also made that drug abuse exacerbates the dilemma of those marginalized by society. Marion McClinton has directed Lady Day with a visceral feel for time, mood, and place. Joel Sass’s set, like Holiday’s memory of having played Carnegie Hall, is a vision of faded majesty. Michael Wangen’s lighting enhances the ambience. The night I attended, Petrus was accompanied instrumentally by the talented trio of Ron Evaniuk, Thomas A. West and Dale Alexander.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Extended through July 1
Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis