Thomasina Petrus first connected with Billie Holiday in 1986, when she was 15.
"That's the year my grandmother died. She kind of raised all of us," said Petrus, who plays Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," opening Friday at Osseo's Yellow Tree Theatre. "I was trying to find a connection to the time when my grandmother was a young girl. Billie Holiday's laugh is like hers — it has the same energy. And my grandmother was also a very complicated woman."
"Lady Day" depicts a 1959 nightclub performance by Holiday, who died of liver disease months later. The jazz singer talks about her stormy life and performs signature numbers, including lynching-themed "Strange Fruit."
Petrus is a Twin Cities cabaret and theater veteran whose work includes "Five Points" at Theater Latté Da, "The Color Purple" at Park Square and "Beauty and the Beast" at the Ordway. She has performed "Lady Day" in eight runs, as well as a Holiday club act, so she has developed a kinship with the legend. It's been there since she bought the rights to the play in 2004 and urged theaters, including Mixed Blood and Penumbra, to produce it.
We asked her six questions about returning to a favorite role:
Q: How did that first production come together (Prince, for whom Petrus did recordings that remain in his storied vaults, dropped in on one performance)?
A: I was so hard-headed that I couldn't wait for a theater to put it up. I said, "I'll produce it myself and Lou Bellamy [of Penumbra] said, "OK. Good luck." So I rented the Old Arizona Theater. [Owner] Darcy Knight basically gave me the building for free. It was the first time I'd ever worked that hard on anything and, afterwards, I thought, "I could be OK with doing this one show for decades."
Q: Are you still learning about Holiday?
A: It's hard to explain how close I feel to her in this production. It's almost a little scary, even for me. This space is so intimate and it's just [pianist Tom West] and I, so you really get to focus on the relationship he and I have had over 25 years. It's indicative of how musicians who really knew her could take care of her, at her most vulnerable and weakest.
Q: Why is Holiday so important to you?
A: When I discovered jazz and Billie Holiday in high school, it sent me on this journey of discovering everything else through that lens. She's connected to so much of who we are as America: how we treat people, women, arts, mental health, addiction, poverty, new wealth. She kind of is a touchstone for what I think is an important and usable piece to start real conversations about healing.
Q: Popular culture, including the Oscar-nominated "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," often depicts her tragically. But you consider her a survivor?
A: She couldn't have children, wasn't allowed to adopt children because she had been in prison, wasn't allowed to sing in licensed clubs. It all spiraled in the end and singing was really the only thing that kept her upright. Even though some people said her voice was really tired-sounding, it was the only thing she had. With the addiction, my understanding after studying her for so long, sometimes she was using in order to stay here. A lot of addicts will say that: "I need a fix today or I am jumping off a bridge."
Q: How about the courage required to keep singing "Strange Fruit," when managers and club owners told her not to?
A: You know the effect you are having on people when you sing that song ("Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze"). And then to have the nerve to sing it down South? She had to enter through the back door, like they wanted, but she said, "I am singing that song. They are going to hear this."
Q: This is your Yellow Tree debut and your beloved, homemade cashew brittle is a fixture there. Will it be sold at "Lady Day?"
A: If I didn't bring that damn cashew brittle, people would cuss me out. I've literally had people ask and I reply, "No, but I'll be singing my heart out for you for 17 straight hours." And they go, "So you're saying you don't have any out in your car?" I have addicted this whole city. Which is great. I love it.
'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill'
Who: By Lanie Robertson. Directed by Austene Van.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 21.
Where: Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Av. SE., Osseo.
Protocol: Masks required only at Sunday matinees.
Tickets: $31-$35, 763-493-8733 or yellowtreetheatre.com.