Greta Oglesby plays the elder Nellie, who serves as the narrator of her life. It's a clever device in which Nellie interacts with her own past as she shares it with the audience. Despite all that she's accomplished in her life, she displays some uncertainty and perhaps even regret at not having said or done what she now, in hindsight, believes she should have. Several times in the play, the young Nellie (Shá Cage) says something, only to be corrected by the older Nellie - that's what I wanted to say, but what I really said was this. How many of us would like to rewrite scenes from our past? But our guide Nellie makes sure to convey the truth of her story, even if it takes a few tries to get it right.
|Nellie organizes her fellow workers
while her older self looks on and encourages
Two Opening Nights in St. Paul, two excellent Michael Hoover set designs. In addition to Johnny Baseball's movable bleacher platforms, he designed a somber and stately backdrop for Nellie's life. The wall of a building with large windows resides in the back of the stage, which serves as Nellie's elevator in addition to windows in which we see silhouettes of voices from Nellie's past. In front is a sparse open space with a few chairs and tables. It's a simple and entirely appropriate environment for this story to be told.
I appreciate The History Theatre for telling stories like this. Nellie's story is pretty remarkable, for a black woman in the early part of the 20th Century with very little power given to her by the world, to find her own power and dedicate her life to improving conditions for working people like herself. Simple things that we today take for granted, like weekends off and health insurance, we owe to people like Nellie. Head to The History Theater between now and Feb. 17 to learn more about this remarkable woman. (Discount tickets available on Goldstar.com.)