BWW Review: OLEANNA at Walnut Street Theatre
How do you make a classic play with just two characters and one set fresh and new? Pick a relevant time, put it against a minimalist background and cast two people who would not be considered for a traditional production.
Walnut Street Theatre's Oleanna brings new meaning to the power struggle between a young female student and a well-off professor by focusing on how interaction with authority figures can shape a person.
The play is typically performed by two white actors. John, the professor, can come off as a pompous, extremely well educated man who had always grown up with privilege. However, by casting Johnnie Hobbs Jr., a black man, in the role, John's lines about being told he wasn't smart enough or good enough to succeed in school as a child take on new context. You get more of a glimpse into John's character: black students are almost three times as likely to be suspended or expelled from K-12 schools than the white students they are in class with. John, rather than being a person who has always been granted privilege, is instead the kid who made it out. He may act above his students and like his intelligence reigns supreme, but Hobbs' take on the character makes it clear that John is extremely proud of his accomplishments and wants to make it known.
Carol, the college student, plays more or less the same regardless of skin color, but the difference at Walnut Street Theatre is Jessica Johnson's uber-realistic performance. Carol's lines, which are written choppily and are often read indignantly, become fluid and truly believable. Johnson plays a student who really does want to be understood and believes what she's doing is right and necessary. Other productions have made her out to be an angry young woman who creates power for herself to teach John a lesson, but Johnson's Carol relates to Hobbs' John in that they both beat the system, but she uses her natural intelligence and power to teach John that although he has succeeded beyond the odds, he needs to use his authority to set an example for others.
Oleanna was written in response to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, and Walnut Street Theatre's version does this justice. Not only is it extremely relevant because of the recent Brett Kavanaugh-Christine Blasey Ford hearings -- which many have related to the Thomas-Hill hearings -- but the show subtly tackles the black issues overlooked in the original production.
The play takes place in John's office, and the set is surrounded by audience members. This makes it difficult to see actors at times, but the orientation is poetic. Because you can only see one actor's face at a time, it is easy to isolate the characters' experience and understand how they interpret what is happening to them. This is important as the show unfolds and you understand that Carol believes John took advantage of her, while John believes he was giving her his version of emotional and academic support.
Walnut Street Theatre's Oleanna will make you think about power and gender issues, but also shows how these issues can disproportionately affect minorities. The show runs until February 17 and tickets can be purchased HERE.