Theater note: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill


“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Billie Holiday’s signature song about lynching was written by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx in the 1930s. Billie Holiday herself, Lady Day, was born in 1915 to a 13-year-old mother. Her life was as hard as you might imagine, with rape at the age of 12, truancy, reform school, drug addiction, abuse by the men in her life – and the ever-present wounds of racism that circumscribed her life and her career.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Park Square Theatre • 20 W. 7th Place • St. Paul, MN 55102 • Ticket Office: 651.291.7005
Through May 4, 2008

The printed program offers a fairly detailed story of Lady Day’s life, which is helpful since the play itself does not. It plays more as cabaret than drama, alternating short monologues with songs.

Emerson’s Bar and Grill is set in Philadelphia, a few months before Lady Day’s death in 1959. The play is spare, with two actors and a piano on a bare stage.

In between the songs, Lady Day talks about hard times as a woman and especially as a black woman. She recalls other tours, when she was not allowed to eat in the club where she sang, and denied even the use of a bathroom. There’s no difference between black people and white people, she assures us, except that white people are meaner.

“Philly has been the rat’s ass for me,” Lady Day says. She would rather be in New York, but she can’t sing there any more: she lost her cabaret license because of going to jail on a drug charge.

Lady Sings the Blues (1972) told a more complete story of Lady Day’s life. Diana Ross played Billie Holiday then, belting out the songs. Diana Ross was great, but she was Diana Ross. Thomasina Petrus is Billie Holiday. Any actor playing Lady Day would need a great voice, and Petrus has one. She does what seems impossible: her voice sounds like the voice of Billie Holiday on every album and CD I’ve ever listened to. Her performance is a remarkable tour de force.

Mary Turck is editor of the TC Daily Planet.