The play begins with the three-piece band (led by Thomas A. West on piano, as Billie's accompanist/friend/manager Jimmy Powers) warming up on stage. Billie soon wanders in from the audience, and takes the stage to sing a few songs and tell a few stories. We hear about her musical influences (Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong), her beloved mother referred to as The Duchess, her stint in jail, and the racism she experienced while traveling with other musicians in the segregated South. She slowly declines throughout the show as the drugs and alcohol in her system take effect, until she can't sing anymore. It's a story that's both inspiring and tragic to witness.
I can think of no #TCTheater actor/singer/performer who could play the music legend Billie Holiday (and following in the footsteps of musical theater legend Audra McDonald) than Thomasina Petrus. Her authentic voice is something to hear, powerful and uniquely her. But for this show she sings with Billie Holiday's voice. And not Billie in her prime, but Billie at the end of her life when addiction has taken ahold of her, to the point where she can barely stagger across the stage to the microphone and sing. It takes a lot of control to play someone that out of control, and Thomasina does it expertly, in a master class on vocal control and performance. She sings a few songs as herself after curtain call and the difference is remarkable. After watching her decline as Billlie, she's once again full of life and spirit, which just makes you realize what an incredible job she does transforming into Billie.
|Billie Holiday (Thomasina Petrus) with accompanist|
Jimmy Powers (Thomas A. West, photo by Dan Norman)
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill continues through June 24 at Jungle Theater in Uptown. It's a beautiful tribute to the woman, the legend, and the history that is Billie Holiday.