‘Singing was her salvation’: Twin Cities actress brings Billie Holiday back to stage

May 22, 2018

As a teenager, Thomasina Petrus was aiming for a career in dance. Then she saw Jevetta Steele perform an Aretha Franklin revue.

Just seeing the way Jevetta commanded the stage made something click in me, Petrus recalled. Whatever feeling she had up there, you felt it strongly. I wanted to have that feeling for myself and give it to other people.

With her parents approval, she hung out at jazz haunts, watching and learning from such pros as Dennis Spears, Gwen Matthews and Debbie Duncan.

Today, Petrus is their peer, and shes playing the great jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emersons Bar and Grill, the stage bio by Lanie Robertson that opens this week at Jungle Theater. Petrus first performed the role a decade ago, and subsequently released an album of Holiday songs. We caught up with her before a rehearsal.

Q: How did you get started in jazz?

A: My mom let me go to shows at Yvettes (a now-defunct club), and there was this beautiful singer from Chicago, Colette Wickenhagen. I would intercept her after the performance. I always had a couple of tunes ready, and they would let me sit onstage. I was so terrified, I used to sing with my eyes closed.

Q: When did things take off?

A: Well, when I got into my first jazz band with Walter Chancellor, the horn player. Hes my Lester Young, Billies best friend. I would scat like his horn plays. Walters very personal and personable onstage, and he taught me a whole lot. He would go up, play a little riff on the horn, greet everybody. Then he would break the band down, all the instruments getting solos, and would turn his back to the audience like Miles Davis, then say to me: Youd better say something. I learned a lot about how to connect to the audience from him.

Q: Youve had a very strong identification with Billie. Where did it start?

A: Billie reminds me of the women in my family. She sounds like my grandmother that high, nasal voice. And they had the same laugh. My granny was a heavy drinker who was quiet around people, just like Billie. I always wondered, in those quiet moments, whats going on in their heads?

Q: You did this show 10 years ago at the old Phoenix Theatre. I remember it vividly, because I saw bats flying in the rafters. Whats different this time around, aside from not having any bats at the Jungle?

A: Ha, ha. Well, its been 10 years, and I never stopped listening to her. A lot of life has happened to me, too. Ive been through some things of my own. I can think of her now in a more mature light, seeing her pain and how shes going to work through it. And we have a full band, not just piano.

Q: Tell me about your preparation.

A: I have a whole different range from Billie. The only reason I can sound like her is because I challenge myself to be able to reach to her, vocally. When I get into Billie, I can close my eyes and sit in the place in my voice where she can live. Its less about mimicry than about letting her come through.

Q: Whats so relatable about her story?

A: Billie is just a degree or two separated from the rest of jazz, from womens mental health issues, from incarceration, racism. She carried all kinds of history and trauma. As a child, she slept in the same bed as her great-grandmother, who was a freed slave. Her great-grandmother died in the bed with her, and it drove her crazy. Shes all kinds of us.

Q: Are there things that are not in the play that you wish you could bring in?

A: Well, I have to remember that the play is written from the perspective of a man who researched it and there are a lot of questions I wouldve asked that he didnt. Like, why didnt she have children? Billie loved children and wanted them. She couldnt adopt because she had a felony on her record. I thought that maybe she couldnt have kids because she was raped when she was a little girl, and that messed her up, but in my research, I found out that she was pregnant at one point and some nuns made her sit in a mustard bath for an abortion. Those things are not explored enough. You look at someone like Etta [James], who had the same lifestyle, and a lot of her saving grace came from the fact that she had children. Otherwise, she wouldve been dead sooner, probably ODd, just like Billie.

Q: Billie was an icon. Anyone with a flower in their hair, especially a gardenia, is invoking her. And yet she seemed so lonely.

A: Amy Winehouse was that way, kind of alone in a crowd. I watched a documentary on Lady Gaga recently, and she was referring to the fact that she has people touching her all day stylists, fans, everybody and after its all done, shes completely alone. Theres no sound. Nothing. Billie was that way. Her mom and dad passed early. When she was in prison [she spent several months in a federal prison for narcotics possession], who came to see her?

Q: What does Billie bring out in you?

A: People are not the worst things theyve ever done. Shes been vilified as a crazy heroin addict. But shes more than that, as were learning now that the opioid epidemic is upon a broader swath of the country.

Q: Is the story of Billie Holiday a tragedy or a triumph?

A: Its both. Often its positioned as the former. But in order to be triumphant and get up, you have to have been down. Hers is the complete story of a warrior. A lot of times we glorify something thats only half done. The person who wrote and they lived happily ever after should be shot. Obviously, they were never married. Theres no simple fairy tale in this life.

Q: And the takeaway for audiences?

A: Aside from the beauty? That you have to keep going. Even if you feel like youve failed, its not the end. In my family, people suffer from depression, addictive behavior. But theyre more than those labels. What Ive learned over time is that the things that you inherit, you can choose to wear them the way you do clothes, or you can put them away in the closet. Billie came out of some horrible circumstances. Singing was her salvation. Its that thing that comes out pure in the darkest of times. And its the thing that gave her a bit of peace in the storm.

612-673-4390 @rohanpreston