Old Song, New Voice
Be honest. If someone told you ahead of time that you were going to see a play that depicts the coming-of-age of a young black girl somewhere in the South during the mid-Sixties, you might want to respond, "What a shame! I have a root canal to attend to." Or, if you're even more honest: "Been there, done that." Yet the M Ensemble Company's production of Olivia's Opus, about just that topic, is worth seeing, thanks to Tara Reid's performance and the direction of Herman LeVern Jones. Reid's energetic and at times quirky characterization of Olivia Bradford Long, and Jones's smart guidance and his incorporation of multimedia elements lend new credence to the old truth that any theme can be successfully revisited. Just be sure and enter through a new door.
Olivia's Opus is a one-woman show, a dramatic monologue in the truest sense of the word. It is thick with language, narrative, and movement. Framed in a series of remembrances from birth to the age of sixteen, Olivia tells her tale on a tiny, spare stage, which at times represents the interior of her home, sometimes the lower-middle-class neighborhood somewhere near the Mason-Dixon line. As the first play written by veteran actress Nora Cole, who until this South Florida debut has been the only actress to perform it, it's a solid, fairly compelling narrative, although at times the language is a bit uneven. There are brassy, ballsy Ntozake Shange ("I don't have to do anything but be black and die!") moments mixed in with some pretty flat, "Dear Diary"-type sentiments: "Remember when you realized that your parents weren't perfect?" The real issue here, however, is that the theme, coming of age during the civil-rights era, seems so overdone as to be almost unpalatable.
But in the hands of the M Ensemble, which performs out of a storefront in North Miami, the tired story gets a revitalized lift. Amazingly with Reid at the helm, we are happy to be steered back to the Sixties accompanied by Stevie Wonder and news clips of Walter Cronkite announcing Kennedy's assassination, because Olivia as a character is believable and compelling. She is tall, thin, and gawky, with Pippy Longstocking braids. Her tag sticks out from the back of her T-shirt. She puts lightening-bug goo on her fingers and pretends they are jewels. She prays to have arches in her feet so her ballet instructor will notice her. She prays for forgiveness for her earlier request that all her brothers and sisters die, so that she can be alone with Mom and Dad. And she pauses during prayer to scratch her rear end. As the play progresses, we see an older, more mature Olivia who narrates a sexy, sizzling, summer teen party, and an outraged Olivia who thunders back at the omnipotent, judgmental God she has been raised to obey.
One of the most compelling moments comes when Olivia has a conversation with her other self, a sort of superego with a voice that is a combination of Chris Rock and Esther from Sanford and Son (that purse-slinging, Bible-bludgeoning Esther: "You going to hell, you fish-eyed fool!"). Olivia reminisces, "Remember when Dee ran away from home because he thought he was white?" And the raspy voice snaps back: "Yeah, and when he found out he was black he came back, didn't he?" Her performance creates what writer Miller Williams calls "the sympathetic contract," the willingness of the reader to follow a character because of the character's verisimilitude.
Reid has a wide voice range and she uses it effectively -- a critical detail for a one-woman performance. As a child Olivia's voice is high-pitched with a black country accent: "Mama!" she cries, running frenetically around the stage in a circle, up the stairs, and through the audience with the hysteria of any young girl who arrives home terrorized by some hair-pulling classmate. In depicting Olivia as a young woman, her voice loses the high-pitched tone, and most of the accent and becomes much slower and more deliberate.
Occasionally Reid steps out of her character briefly and comments to the audience, a technique which, because it is used subtly and sparingly, adds humor to the often serious dramatic narrative. At one point when Olivia is calling out for a relative, she stops, turns to the audience, and informs us: "That's black for Mary Lou." Later she pauses in the middle of a heated love-hate dialogue with herself on the subject of nappy hair and declares, "Dreads aren't here yet." In a similar discussion about skin color, she comments, "'Black is beautiful' hasn't arrived yet."
Besides the development of Olivia's character, Reid uses her talent to give us glimpses of the central figures in Olivia's world: her Southern black mother trying to keep her eight children out of trouble with her righteous, don't-talk-back-to-me voice; Crazy Dave, local radio personality and pervert; the girls from the neighborhood gasping and gossiping about who won't be going back to school in the fall "because they bellies swelled up." This variety of voices and accents doesn't create a Sybil or Lily Tomlin effect here. Reid switches seamlessly and organically; everything flows from the central character, preserving the dramatic monologue form.
Then there is Reid's use of her body, for which director Jones should be given some credit. In one scene, which follows a disturbing sexual experience, the lights dim and the song "Time Takes the Tears Away" (sung by playwright Nora Cole) comes on. Reid performs a series of movements that could not be called dance or even an actor's interpretation of a young girl dancing alone in her room. Her moves are deliberate, almost robotic (remember synchronized swimming?), with a sort of lyrical, dreamlike quality, but are completely void of any kind of grace, sensuality, or even physicality. They seem more like abstract representations of memory than interpretations, a welcome break in almost an hour and a half of solid narration. Olivia's movements don't really add dimension to the character, but they do to the work itself.
Although there's always a risk when coupling multimedia with theater, the music and news clips in Olivia's Opus never overshadow Reid's monologue, the result of Jones's subtle touch. Jones worked on the first production of the play with Cole, and has long been active in the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from which the M Ensemble has been picking up a number of its productions. Jones made a smart choice in not having Olivia speak about or react to the clips. They exist within the play as they would for a child in that time period. Kennedy's assassination and brutal footage of the Watts riots are sandwiched between the dreamy, awkwardly executed moves of a flat-footed black girl who is invisible to her ballet instructor, or the outraged adolescent who is scandalized when she catches her mother smoking a cigarette on her break at work.
We have seen these clips in history classes, movies, and video collages. Their black-and-white graininess and the gravelly sound can still make them compelling in the right context. Ditto the era's music. When juxtaposed against Reid's portrayal of Olivia, the result is neither didactic nor clichéd. Not any easy task to pull off, but a reason to venture up to the tiny theater that has.
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