Thomasina Petrus lights up the stage with her rumbling, robust voice, belting a Mahalia Jackson gospel favorite. Charmin Michelle soothes with her sweet, jazzy croon on a Nat King Cole ballad. T. Mychael Rambo brings the basso profundo gravitas with the blues, Little Walter style.
Between all these terrific tunes in the show titled "Rondo '56," there is a message. A tough message, a disquieting, disturbing message. A message about institutional racism, disrespect and disregard for a community, about the callous extinction of a neighborhood in the Twin Cities in the 1950s and '60s in the name of so-called progress.
It's the story of Rondo, St. Paul's largely Black neighborhood that was displaced by the building of Interstate94.
There is no way to sugarcoat it, even if you gussy it up with stylish clothes and catchy vintage songs. Historic photos and spoken word — the words of folks who lived in Rondo back in the day — tell the true story, sandwiched between a nostalgic hit parade of R&B, blues, gospel, jazz and early rock 'n' roll.
"It's like trying to explain something tough to children. This show is like that," said singer/actor Petrus, who will perform "Rondo '56" Thursday and again Nov. 26 at Crooners in Fridley. "I love how the information is given around the songs and photos. It's not about lying or softening reality. It's about really being thoughtful about how we are delivering the whole truth."
Rambo, who has lived in the Rondo area for 30 years, feels as if he and the other singers play the role of contemporary griots, the African storytellers.
"We are the keeper of history through song," he said. "I think [this show] is medicinal. Music opens and heals the wounds at the same time."
Commissioned by the Minnesota History Center, "Rondo '56" was created in 2010 by St. Paul keyboard savant Dan Chouinard. A year earlier at the center, he presented "Mambo Italiano," a music-centric program about Twin Cities Italian neighborhoods, even though he's not Italian. The History Center wanted more musical performances for its auditorium.
A bit of a history buff, Chouinard decided to investigate Rondo because he had friends who grew up there and he often bicycled through the area en route to his home in the Summit Hill neighborhood.
He spent months combing through Minnesota Historical Society files for period photos. He read books — including "Voices of Rondo," an oral history by Kate Cavett — and uses oral history passages in "Rondo '56." He talked to Rondo elders, including trumpeter Melvin Carter Sr. (grandfather of St. Paul's mayor), who wanted to play music instead of talking, so they jammed on some Duke Ellington tunes.
Does it seem appropriate for a white guy — who grew up in Richfield and lived on a hobby farm in Lindstrom for 10 years before earning a degree in French and Italian at St. John's University — to create a show about Black history?
"That was a point of acute inquiry and a degree of discomfort early on, writing this show and knowing that I was a white narrator saying, 'I did not live these stories,' " Chouinard acknowledged. "But it's important for all of us to know these stories well enough that we can tell them with precision and with compassion and with a sense of purpose. And humility.
"Humility is maybe the most important quality to bring to this increasingly fractured era when it maybe requires a little more effort to learn one another's stories because it's so easy to be wrapped up in our own stories."
The "Rondo '56" singers, who are Black, see no disconnect in a Black-themed show created by a white musician.
"As a Black person, I don't mind finding things in our history by people who aren't Black," Petrus said. "If we get comfortable telling the whole truth, there's nothing to tense up for. Dan is a great storyteller. He loves finding the beauty in the story and showing the humanity. It's like holding your hand in the scary part of a haunted house or something; he doesn't shy away from showing the whole truth."
"It's like Ken Burns," said singer Michelle, referring to the celebrated documentarian who has done in-depth series on jazz, the Civil War and baseball.
Even though Rambo felt privy to information as a longtime Rondo resident, he discovered that he's learned so much from this project.
"I learned that I didn't know what I thought I knew," he said.
"I also learned something about my own ability to be present because this story blends storytelling, historical facts and song in a way that I don't do a lot of," continued the veteran of musical theater and nightclub stage.
"This has a lot of accountability in it. Because we're looking at ancestral legacy, it became something I felt more committed to. This is real stuff. You can't just play through this."
Evolving content and cast
Since 2001, Chouinard has helmed annual Black-focused programs for Martin Luther King Day at St. Joan of Arc Church in south Minneapolis. The singer/pianist/accordionist has staged many other themed shows around town, including a Civil War piece for TPT, a revue based on Leonard Bernstein's letters and songs and "Café Europa," about his travels to World War II sites in Europe.
Chouinard and company presented "Rondo '56" in 2010 and 2011 featuring Rambo and two former Rondo residents, Yolande Bruce and Cynthia Johnson. Petrus signed on for a 2014 presentation. Michelle joined this summer at Crooners.
The content, as well as the cast, has evolved.
The earlier iteration was "presented from a third-person lens," said Rambo. "There's an intimacy of this version based on how Dan [has] us engaging with our own personal feelings and stories. Its intimacy, its immediacy and earnestness."
At Crooners, Michelle loved how audience members reacted out loud. "We'd mention a café. And someone shouted 'Yep,' " said the veteran vocalist but first-time actor. "That relaxed me."
Neither strictly a music revue nor a theater piece, "Rondo '56" surprises patrons.
"A lot of people didn't know what to expect. When they experienced what they experienced, they found it to be more than they imagined," Rambo observed. "It was like unearthing history, finding artifacts that people were getting a chance to see firsthand."
Afterward at Crooners, people wanted to talk to the cast.
"I met people each night who had connections or lived in Rondo," said Chouinard, the pianist and bandleader for the show. "This woman had a photo of her father, who owned the Treasure Inn, standing behind the bar. He's 107 now."
With: Charmin Michelle, Thomasina Petrus, T. Mychael Rambo and Dan Chouinard.
When: 7 p.m. Thu. and 6 & 8:30 p.m. Nov. 26,
Where: Crooners, 6161 Hwy. 65, Fridley
Tickets: $30 and up, croonersmn.com.