Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
I have seen and loved all of those performances and more. My first memory of Ms. Oglesby was in 2009, watching her sing the paint right off the walls, so ferocious and moving was her performance as the title character in the Guthrie's mounting of Caroline, or Change. I walked out of the theater convinced that I would never forget the name Greta Oglesby, and I was right.
She has put together Handprints based on her life journey–not a catalogue of her many brilliant past performances, but her personal story of a girl named Greta and how she ended up where she did. It is based a book she wrote in 2012 called "Mamma 'n Nem." During a season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she began teasing her book into a work for the stage. That work, Handprints, is having its world premiere at the History Theatre. If you're an admirer of her work, which probably includes anyone who's ever see her perform, you will enjoy spending this time in her company, and come to appreciate her not only as a gifted actress and singer, but as a soulful yet uncomplicated human being.
I say uncomplicated not because she doesn't have a sharp mind or feel the world deeply, or that her life hasn't had its big moments and outsize influences, but that she has incorporated those holistically into the fabric of her life, creating whole cloth of her experiences rather than allowing the fibers to tangle her into knots. She emits a serenity and wisdom that makes being in the room with her feel more like a blessing than a performance.
Like any one of us, Oglesby has had her share of challenges. One of the greatest was growing up without knowing that her father loved her. He was a storefront preacher in Chicago and a strict disciplinarian with extremely restrictive rules. When rules were broken, or even bent, the offending child received a whipping with a coiled belt. Young Greta could not understand that his "spare the rod and spoil the child" thinking was his misguided way of loving her. Fortunately, her wise and loving mother, a schoolteacher, provided a balance. In Oglesby's adult life, we see her and her mother as one another's best friends. The actor regales us with loving anecdotes about their time together and moves us with the grief she suffers upon losing that beloved woman.
In Handprints, Oglesby acts primarily as storyteller, dishing out the story of her own life, at times detouring into playing herself at different ages and sometimes portraying other significant women in her life. In the course of telling her story she sometimes breaks out in songs she composed to accentuate her life's narrative, which indeed they do. Much as Oglesby engages us when she speaks, any opportunity to hear her sing is additional cause to celebrate.
Dennis Spears is on hand, superbly playing a series of roles: her taciturn father, her cross-dressing older male cousin C.C., the suave man she meets as a student at Rust College whom she marries, and the director who starts her on her way when she decides to check out an audition notice in the Chicago newspaper. The notice called for six women who were African American and could sing gospel, and though she had never acted, she had sung gospel at church and at college, so she figured she qualified. From that moment her love affair with theater was born.
Several children appear in the show portrayed by large and adorable puppets, with Oglesby handling them and speaking for them. They are her childhood friends, and one puppet fills in for young Greta in a warmly rollicking scene in which her Auntie (played by Oglesby) attempts to wash her squirmy niece's hair–with the girl screaming that the water is too hot. It is depicted as a unique and specific experience while it brought to mind long-ago memories of my own squawking when my father or mother washed my hair–the water too hot, the shampoo running into my eyes–and then of my son behaving much the same when it was his turn to suffer the indignity of a hair-washing. Experiences that are uniquely personal yet also universal: that is the magic that animates Handprints.
Music director Sanford Moore is onstage throughout the show, providing rousing piano accompaniment to Oglesby's songs, and eloquent underscoring throughout the show. Director Richard D. Thompson has found a fine balance between guiding Oglesby to be the character Greta as she grows up and matures into a woman and an artist, while also putting us completely at ease by just being herself.
Jacourtney Mountain-Bluhm designed winsome costumes for Oglesby and changes in attire that for Spear easily identify the characters he plays from scene to scene. Oglesby herself created one costume item: a beautiful quilt in shades of blue, big enough for her to wrap around herself like a coronation robe. Set and properties designer Kirby Moore picks up on this motif, having created a setting which entirely mirrors the hues and patters of that quilt, another way in which Handprints expresses its intent to be not a dissection of a life but a holistic drawing together of one. Lighting (Karin Olson), sound (Nick Walberg), and video (Leslie Ritenour) design all contribute to that same end.
Handprints's choice of venue, History Theatre, is apt, for it is a sublime example of the power of the story any one of us has to tell. Yes, Greta Oglesby is a gifted artist and a treasure to our theater community, but what one sifts out of Handprints is not how special she is, but how much like anyone else, for we all have a story with ups and downs, joys and heartbreak, misunderstandings that darken our loves, and resolutions that bring forth the sun. She merely had the grit to get it done and, to our great good fortune, the generosity to share it with us.
Handprints runs through February 18, 2024, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Playwright and Composer: Greta Oglesby; Director: Richard D. Thompson; Music Director: Sanford Moore; Dramaturg: Alayna Jacqueline; Scenic and Properties Design: Kirby Moore; Costume Design: Jacourtney Mountain-Bluhm; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Nick Walberg; Video Design: Leslie Ritenour; Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Stage Manager: Gianna Haseman.
Cast: Greta Oglesby (Greta, others), Dennis Spears ( father, C.C., Dennis Oglesby, others), Sanford Moore (pianist), Linnea Cole (voiceover), Meghann Oglesby (voiceover).