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 she’s playing the great jazz singer Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s 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 Yvette’s (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. He’s my Lester Young, Billie’s best friend. I would scat like his horn plays. Walter’s 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: You’d better say something. I learned a lot about how to connect to the audience from him.
Q: You’ve 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, what’s 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. What’s different this time around, aside from not having any bats at the Jungle?
A: Ha, ha. Well, it’s been 10 years, and I never stopped listening to her. A lot of life has happened to me, too. I’ve been through some things of my own. I can think of her now in a more mature light, seeing her pain and how she’s 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. It’s less about mimicry than about letting her come through.
Q: What’s so relatable about her story?
A: Billie is just a degree or two separated from the rest of jazz, from women’s 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. She’s 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 would’ve asked that he didn’t. Like, why didn’t she have children? Billie loved children and wanted them. She couldn’t adopt because she had a felony on her record. I thought that maybe she couldn’t 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 would’ve been dead sooner, probably OD’d, 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 it’s all done, she’s completely alone. There’s 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 they’ve ever done. She’s been vilified as a crazy heroin addict. But she’s more than that, as we’re 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: It’s both. Often it’s 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 that’s only half done. The person who wrote “and they lived happily ever after” should be shot. Obviously, they were never married. There’s 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 you’ve failed, it’s not the end. In my family, people suffer from depression, addictive behavior. But they’re more than those labels. What I’ve 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. It’s that thing that comes out pure in the darkest of times. And it’s the thing that gave her a bit of peace in the storm.