Greta Oglesby: After ‘Caroline,’ change

Greta Oglesby, right, in "Caroline or Change"
Michal Daniel/The Guthrie
Greta Oglesby, right, in “Caroline, or Change”

Actor/singer Greta Oglesby made a big splash in the theater community in 2009, when she played the lead in Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change” at the Guthrie. Her performance was variously described as “ravishing,” “indelible,” “powerful,” “magnificent,” “heartbreaking,” “brilliant” and “the best performance on a Twin Cities stage this year.”

“Caroline,” for which Oglesby won the Ivey Award, was one of many roles she has made her own since moving to the Twin Cities from Chicago in 2000 with her husband, the Rev. Dennis Oglesby, who had been named minister to the city at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. Today he serves the congregation of Park Avenue United Methodist Church, where Greta occasionally sings.

Oglesby’s résumé includes three seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “Crowns” at the Guthrie, “Gem of the Ocean” at the Goodman Theater, and several plum roles at Penumbra, among others. Kushner loved her in “Caroline.” August Wilson was a fan. In March of 2010, she sang “Lot’s Wife” from “Caroline” at New York’s Lincoln Center.

Greta Oglesby
Greta Oglesby

This weekend, Oglesby will perform the crowd-pleasing “Lot’s Wife” at the Capri Theater, along with other Broadway show tunes and gospel songs. The following weekend, she opens in “The Gospel According to Jerry” at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, a world premiere. MinnPost caught up with her for a Q&A.

MinnPost: Let’s talk first about “Caroline,” since many people associate you with that play. Did it change things for you?

Greta Oglesby: I guess … yes. I didn’t know how extraordinary the show would be. I don’t think any of us knew. We knew that the play and the music are wonderful, that Tony Kushner is brilliant, but so many things converged on that show and made it so magical. The directing, the set design, the costumes, the cast, the music director: Everything was perfect. It transcended anything we thought it would be.

“Caroline” gave me the chance to go to Lincoln Center. It was an event to honor Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music for “Caroline” and other Broadway shows. They definitely wanted “Lot’s Wife,” the big song from “Caroline.” Scores of people have done this role. They could have called on anyone. I was honored to be able to do it.

When I first started singing “Lot’s Wife,” I thought: This is a song I’ll never sing again, it’s so taxing emotionally and vocally. But it’s a song I love. It will close my show at the Capri.

MP: Do you think “Caroline” was your strongest role? What else are you especially proud of?

GO: “Caroline” is one of my favorite roles, running neck-and-neck with Aunt Esther in “Gem of the Ocean.” I originated the role of Esther at the Goodman and had the chance to do it a second time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2007. I love the role of Esther. In the script, she’s 285 years old. It doesn’t matter how old I get, I can always play that role.

MP: You first performed in 1993, in a musical in Chicago. You’ve said, “It’s as though I came into myself.” What did you mean by that?

GO: I was working as an accountant for the city of Chicago, and I thought I was living my dream. Once I got into that first production, it’s like something else opened up inside me that I didn’t even know was there. It just opened up and blossomed.

To be part of a piece of art, like “Caroline,” that not only lifts my spirits but also does that for everybody in the audience — there’s nothing like it. I heard so many amazing comments after the show. One man came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, “Thank you for changing my life.” I thought … wow. That’s why I do this. It’s a real ministry for me. It’s not about show or ego. When I walk into a theater, it’s like a sanctuary for me. It’s much bigger than me. It’s not even about me.

MP: You’re both actor and singer. Which do you think is your strongest talent?

GO: I love it if I can go from a musical to a straight play. Going from musical to musical is very taxing on the voice. I love playing straight roles where I don’t have to sing a note. Not that I get tired of singing — well, sometimes I do — but I love it when I can flip back and forth.

For a time, when I was in Chicago, I would show up for auditions for straight plays, and people would say, “Greta, there’s no music in this play.” People looked at me as a musical-theater artist. I decided to break out because I’m more than that. I’m glad I can do both. Now, if I show up for a Shakespeare audition, my résumé speaks for itself. People take me seriously.

MP: You’ve said that you love jazz. When might we hear you sing some jazz?

GO: I have a gig coming up this summer — an outside concert. I’m excited because I’ve never done a jazz concert here. [See below for specifics.]

MP: Let’s talk about “The Gospel According to Jerry.” Is this your first comedy?

GO: Probably … yeah. I’m always cast in dramatic roles. Always. This is a two-person play, and I’ve never done that before, either. It’s one of the reasons I took it. It’s really challenging for me. There are so many lines, and I’m trying to keep all those lines in my head, and it’s only a couple of weeks before the play goes up. In between, there are two concerts for which I have to fit in some rehearsal time. So I’m feeling a little bit of pressure.

MP: Could you tell us something about the play and your role?

GO: It starts out with this African-American woman who goes to an Overeaters Anonymous group led by a Jewish rabbi named Jerry. In his past, he was an overweight person, and now he’s leading a support group. A wonderful friendship happens. Then, out of that, a romantic relationship. It’s very funny, very poignant, really serious, with heated discussions. It’s a lot about relationships between blacks and Jews, and how that has evolved over the years.

MP: Is it harder to be serious, or harder to be funny?

GO: It’s so easy for me to be serious. Probably harder for me to be funny. We’ll see how hard it is. Reading through the script again last night, I think Jerry has more funny lines than me. I’m kind of his sidekick.

MP: What’s next for you, after the Capri shows and this play?

GO: I’ll be at the Guthrie in the Dowling Studio, in a play called “In the Red and Brown Water.” It’s for Pillsbury House; they’re using the Dowling. I’m going to be doing “Caroline” again, at Syracuse Stage, starting Dec. 17. And something else I can’t talk about yet.

MP: If this theater thing doesn’t work out for you, would you go back to being an accountant?

GO: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I could, but so far I haven’t had to go back and crunch numbers. Thank God.

***

Greta Oglesby’s upcoming performances:

“I Sing Because …” The final concert in the Capri’s 2010-11 “Legends” series is a rare solo performance by Oglesby, with Sanford Moore on piano. 7 p.m. Saturday, April 9, and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 10, Capri Theater, 2027 West Broadway, Minneapolis. The first half will focus on gospel songs, the second on Broadway show tunes, including “Lot’s Wife” from “Caroline, or Change.” Tickets $25. Order online through or call 866-811-4111.

“The Gospel According to Jerry,” by Richard Krevolin and Irwin Kula. World premiere. April 16-May 8, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Hillcrest Theater Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 1 p.m. (except April 17, at 7 p.m.). Tickets $26-$12. Call 651-647-4315 or email info@mnjewishteatre.org.

“Live on the Drive.” Oglesby will sing jazz on Thursday, Aug. 11, at a free outdoor concert sponsored by the Cleveland Neighborhood Association. 6 p.m., Victory Memorial Drive at 34th Ave. N. in Minneapolis. FMI, visit the series website later this year; it has not yet been updated with the 2011 schedule.

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