Anyone who’s read my blog from the beginning knows that the voice of Thomasina Petrus  leaves me breathless, and that I admire her talent and her work ethic as both an actor and a producer. (This view is not at all influenced by the drunken pleasure I derive from her butter-laden home-made cashew brittle .) But of the myriad characters and concerts I’ve seen Thomasina perform, none has touched me more than her title role in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, an end-of-life vignette of jazz singer Billie Holiday , at Park Square Theatre .
I had anticipated a special performance, not because of the profusion of public relations material sent my way, but because I heard Thomasina “try out” this character last year in a show at The Capri Theater . She introduced a Billie Holiday song by saying it was her goal to someday “channel” the troubled and transcendent jazz legend on stage. I recall hearing a distinctly different voice from Thomasina that evening, but it still felt like emulation. In Lady Day, the actor/singer becomes Billie Holiday as she might have appeared at a Philadelphia nightclub four months before her death.
In between numbers including “Crazy He Calls Me,” “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit” and “‘T Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” Thomasina’s Holiday reveals what she wanted her life story to be (a husband, a big house, kids) and what it was—a sieve of abuse and neglect, forced prostitution and heroin addiction, through which poured the God-given talent of a singer who understood all too well the blue subjects of her songs.
Clearly the music was her saving grace, and performance “among friends” at the clubs her therapy. “Singin’ is livin’ to me!” says Holiday, who also utters this bit of wisdom: “You can only get to where you is by way of where you been.”
Between her birth to a 13-year-old mother in 1915 and her death of cirrhosis while under house arrest for drug possession in 1959, Billie Holiday became a jazz icon, working with the likes of Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Artie Shaw, all the while suffering the indignities of segregation and misogyny. Thomasina Petrus summons all of that history, that spirit and that sound for a performance every jazz lover—and especially every jazz musician—should see.
Note: If you are hard of hearing, sit up front. We had trouble hearing at times from Row L. If it is simply a matter of turning up the volume on Thomasina’s microphone, that issue may be corrected by the time you see the play, but call ahead to be sure.