Greta Oglesby, a late bloomer as an actor, is suddenly the center of attention in the poignant lead role of “Caroline, or Change.”
Avid Guthrie theatergoer Susan Lenfestey was crying when she left the opening-night performance of “Caroline, or Change.” The Tony Kushner musical about Caroline Thibodeaux, a black maid employed by a white family, had dredged up memories from Lenfestey’s own childhood.
Then there was actor/singer Greta Oglesby, whose portrayal of Caroline transmitted the character’s pain and anger with an exquisite, deep-reaching beauty. After joining the audience in a sustained standing ovation, Lenfestey asked, of Oglesby, “Who is she? Where did she come from?”
Many theatergoers are asking that after seeing what Lenfestey describes as Oglesby’s “superstar turn.”
Although it’s Oglesby’s second turn at the Guthrie — she sang in “Crowns” there in 2004 — she is hardly new to the Twin Cities theater scene.
The actor moved to the area from her native Chicago in September 2000, when her husband, the Rev. Dennis Oglesby. was appointed Minister to the City at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. (In June 2006, he became pastor of Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis.)
“I was apprehensive, because in Chicago, you have to know someone in order to break into the theater,” Greta Oglesby said. “Things are fairly open and welcoming here.”
A lark, a surprise
The second to last of five children born to a father who was a bishop in the Church of God in Christ and a schoolteacher mother, Oglesby learned to sing in the church. “My siblings and I were always the choir, the ushers, everything, in my father’s storefront churches,” she said.
She graduated with an accounting degree from historically black Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., where she met her future husband. (Her daughter, Meghann Oglesby, graduated from Rust the day after “Caroline” opened.)
Oglesby worked for a year as an air-traffic controller in Memphis after college, then for 14 years as an accountant with the city of Chicago. Leafing through the Sun-Times one summer day in 1992, she saw an audition notice for a play called “Mens” at the Chicago Theatre Company. On a lark, she tried out. She won a part.
“I absolutely fell in love with theater and acting,” she said last week in the kitchen of her Brooklyn Park home. “I had no idea that I could act. But after that first experience, it’s like I came into myself.”
She continued to act in Chicago, including at ETA, a black company on the city’s South Side and at the Goodman Theatre, while taking classes in acting.
Not long after arriving in the Twin Cities, she nailed her first audition, for Penumbra Theatre’s Lou Bellamy, and was cast as the title widow in “A Love Song for Miss Lydia.” She has done other shows at Penumbra, including playing the matriarch in “Black Nativity,” and Bertha in August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
Wilson first saw her in that show in 2002. He was so impressed with the authenticity and power of her presence onstage that he asked Oglesby to audition for a part in his next play, “Gem of the Ocean.”
He cast her as Aunt Ester, who is the center of “Gem.” It premiered at the Goodman in spring 2003.
“When I got the call from his casting director in New York, I thought it was going to be a tiny little part,” she said. “I felt so honored. I really didn’t know until I got the script. Then I was just way beside myself. It was so rich and spiritual, going on that stage every night.”
At the premiere of that play at the Goodman, Wilson told Oglesby “that there are only two women who say his words just like he hears them, and I am one of them,” she recalled. (Wilson did not name the other woman.) “If I never get another compliment from anyone about my craft, that is enough for me.”
Onstage, Oglesby “is connected to something deep and enduring, with all that great artistry, but with a lot of heart, too,” said Marion McClinton, who directed her in “Gem.” “She is the genuine article.”
After Oglesby originated Aunt Ester in Chicago, the producers decided they needed a name for the Broadway run. They cast Tony Award-winner Phylicia Rashad as Aunt Ester and asked Oglesby to be her understudy. She declined.
(She did understudy Rashad in the subsequent Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.”)
A lasting impression
Playwright Kushner was visibly moved as he took a bow with the actors on opening night of “Caroline.” He later told Oglesby that, in her “remarkable, magnificent” performance, she had brought to life things that even he had not seen in the work he wrote.
“Caroline” director Marcela Lorca, who first worked with Oglesby when she choreographed “The Winter’s Tale” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where Oglesby was a member of the company for two seasons, said that Caroline could easily be off-putting.
“Her sadness about being unable to change at a time, 1963, when the nation is in the bitter throes of racial progress, could be toxic and corrosive,” she said. “But Greta finds the emotional palette to make her pain riveting. You cling to her journey at every turn.”
Oglesby said she approached the role “from a heart place. You want the audience to empathize with her, to feel her pain and see how vulnerable she really is,” she said. “Of course, it has to all come across in the singing, so I try to bring lots of color, warmth and texture to my voice, so the audience feels she’s multifaceted, not just a one-note Caroline.”
In her performance, Oglesby is also paying tribute to her late aunt, Guylene Simmons, who worked as a domestic for many years.
“She never complained about it or came home with horror stories,” said Oglesby, who is writing a tribute to her aunt. “She was very strong-willed and probably the happiest person I’ve ever known. She taught me that life really can be good, full of laughter and joy.”
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390