Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and GrillYellow Tree Theatre / New Dawn Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Pajama Game, We Shall Someday, Returning to Haifa and What I Learned in Paris

Thomasina Petrus
Photo by Tom Wallace
I was too young to have ever heard Billie Holiday in person or to be among her legion of fans when she died in 1959. As an adult, I have been stirred by her cut-glass voice and the aching heart that comes across in recordings, but it could not possibly match being there for the real thing. Well, the closest we can hope to get to Lady Day is here for the price of a ticket at Yellow Tree Theatre where Thomasina Petrus is Billie Holiday herself in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.

The play is by Lanie Robertson, who has written a number of biographical plays, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill being the best known. He places Billie Holiday, who was given the sobriquet Lady Day, in a low rent South Philadelphia bar, where she has been booked to try to scratch out a living after a life of tremendous low and high points. The time is March, 1959, just four months before her death in a New York City municipal hospital where she had been confined and was awaiting arraignment for yet another arrest for possession of narcotics.

As the audience at Emerson's Bar & Grill, we are witnesses to one of her last performances, and we see her at a low, low ebb from which she never recovered. She performs about a dozen songs, but this is not a musical, it is a play with music. In Lady Day's banter between the songs, her thoughts wildly ricochet as she reveals the torturous twists in her life journey. These include childhood neglect, which led young Billie, born Eleanora Fagan, to work as a domestic in brothels; Sonny, her first love who introduced her to hard drugs; the cruel discrimination she faced as a Black entertainer, especially touring in the south; her relationship with her mother and the death of her father; her failure to have children; and her humiliating arrest on narcotics charges. She does recall moments of glory too–hit records and fans hollered our chants of "We want Billie!"–but she shrugs those high points off as yesterday's news. Not that she doesn't have regrets. She is drowning in regrets. And not that it is all maudlin, not by a long shot. Holiday's banter is often outrageously funny, and her wit illuminates a great intelligence that belies the fact that she dropped out of school when she was only eleven.

The song list include the two most closely identified with Billie Holiday–"Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child"–and the stories behind each of those songs are among the most devastating. "Crazy He Calls Me," "When a Woman Loves a Man," and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" are also on the bill, though she makes it clear that for her, "a little moonlight" doesn't refer to a romantic night sky, but the mind-altering substances that take her to the dark side of the moon. Petrus, a talented singer with a bent towards jazz, affects Billie Holiday's distinctive voice, both in vocals and in her growling, sputtering, profane speech. She effectively depicts the downward spiral of a woman of substance, bravely trying to face the paying fans she desperately needs, even as their numbers dwindle, and being undone by the wounds that haunt her, many of them triggered by the very songs that are her only means of salvation.

The only other character in the play is Holiday's accompanist, Jimmy, played by Thomas West. West is a gifted pianist, but the role calls for genuine acting as well, as Jimmy pays close attention to his star singer and tries to steer her back to the songs when her digressions go on to long, and wander into indelicate topics. West plays the role with great tenderness, revealing the character's devotion to the great Billie Holiday, and his concern for both her health and her dignity.

Robertson has done a superb job of weaving Billie Holiday's story into her nightclub set, making her rambling, alcohol-fueled conversation with the audience feel completely authentic. In directing this production, Austene Van works with that authenticity to establish the illusion that we really are in a late-night club, really are an audience listening to Billie Holiday singing to save her life.

The set designed by Justin Hooper supports this conceit, with a paisley-shaped raised platform that positions Lady Day above the grand piano and steadfast Jimmy. Samantha Fromm Haddow provides a beaded dress befitting the most elegant of chanteuses. Alex Clark's lighting bathes Holiday in bright white, in cool blues, in lurid reds, reflecting her shifting moods, and Jeff Bailey has seen to it that the sound is crisp and that we can catch every bit of Holiday's discourse, slurred speech and all.

When Billie Holiday died, there was seventy cents in her bank account and her estate was worth a grand total of $1,000. This after a string of hit records and lauded public performances. Opportunistic handlers siphoned off much of her earnings, much of it was spent on drugs, and the stigma of her arrests took its toll. Her reputation began a rehabilitation process when, in 1961, she was voted into the DownBeat Hall of Fame, followed by Columbia Records reissuing nearly one hundred of her early records. She was nominated posthumously for twenty-three Grammy Awards for compilations of her work released after she was gone. Today the name Billie Holiday conjures up the exquisite artistry os a singular and rare talent.

Petrus, a frequent presence in other stage productions and club performances, has performed Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill numerous times at theaters around the Twin Cities as well as in other states, and she clearly has a deep love for the project. She wears Holiday's persona as a second skin, at least during the ninety minutes she is on stage. It is a fantastic performance that cries to be experienced.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, co-produced by Yellow Tree Theatre and New Dawn Theatre, runs through May 21, 2023, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN 55369. Tickets: $28 - $35; $3 per ticket discount for seniors (65+), students with valid ID, military personnel, and groups of ten or more. $15 rush seats go on sale the day of performance, pending availability. Masks are required at Sunday matinee performances. For information and tickets, please call 763-493-8733 or visit

Playwright: Lanie Robertson; Director: Austene Van; Assistant Director: Brandon Raghu; Set Design: Justin Hooper; Costume Designer: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Alex Clark; Sound Designer: Jeff Bailey; Props Design: Erika Soukup; Stage Manager: Charles Fraser; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Smith.

Cast: Thomasina Petrus (Billy Holiday), Thomas West (Jimmy).