Since arriving on the Twin Cities theater scene roughly 20 years ago, Greta Oglesby has held a variety of different roles, which has allowed her to showcase her range and ability as an actress. Whether it’s her performance in “King Lear,” “The Wiz,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the veteran performer has showcased time and again that she’s capable of escaping into a variety of such rich and adored characters in the world of theater.
Her latest play, “Handprints,” has been nearly four years in the making and is arguably the most personal as an actor for Oglesby, who embarked on a journey to capture her life story on stage.
Based on her 2012 book, “Mama ‘n ‘Nem, Handprints on My Life,” the production takes audiences through Oglesby’s early life as the child of a pastor and her journey of discovering herself in the performing arts world. “Handprints” sets out to highlight the individuals in Oglesby’s life, especially her father whose difficult legacy and parenting have come to define her life.
The show premiered at the History Theatre in downtown St. Paul on Jan. 25 and is set to run until Feb. 18. Written and performed by Oglesby, the production was directed by Richard D. Thompson with Sanford Moore serving as its music director.
Thompson has been the History Theatre’s artistic director for just over a year, and in taking on the role expressed his interest in bringing stories that offer another perspective to audiences. When the opportunity arose to work with Oglesby on her play, Thompson seized it without hesitation.
“One of the things I’m interested in,” he said,” is bringing more perspective to what history is and what stories are told. With Greta’s piece, I want to honor artists, because I believe artists are a reflection of our world.”
Having worked with Oglesby in the past, Thompson had no concern in regards to her ability to perform and put on a good show. His focus in directing the play was to ensure that Oglesby’s story was accurately portrayed in the way she envisioned it.
“I listened to Greta a lot about what her interests were, what her concerns were, and what the story is that she’s put down on paper, and then worked with her knowing her talents, her abilities, to best bring about that story,” Thompson said.
Kirby Moore, who was in charge of the scenic design of the play, has been with the History Theatre for 12 years. His role in the show was to help bring about a backdrop for Oglesby’s production.
At first, he considered developing a way to depict Chicago and Minneapolis skylines in the background but decided that the design should have a more integral role in the production. “We just kind of tossed that aside and just said, ‘It just needs to become completely a piece of art,’ and this ancestral quilt just needs to cover the entire stage,” Moore said.
Throughout the show a checkered quilt drapes the stage, similar to the one worn by Oglesby at different points in the play. The ancestral quilt serves as a motif in reference to the several individuals depicted in the play whose lives and lessons played an immense role in Oglesby’s life.
The show is split into two acts, the first being roughly a half hour followed by a short intermission with an hour-long second act. In the first half, we meet a young Greta, the daughter of a strict pastor, who would come to fear her father’s temper as she dealt with physical abuse. We’re also introduced to Oglesby’s nurturing mother and aunt.
What originally was intended as a one-woman show morphed into a more dynamic performance between Oglesby and Dennis Spears, who takes on a variety of roles including Oglesby’s father, husband, and her grade-school bully.
Originally, Oglesby developed the play with Marcela Lorca at Ten Thousand Things, but due to the pandemic had called off the production. In their time together, Lorca and Oglesby agreed that there was a need for another performer to help bring the play to life.
Throughout the entire production, Oglesby showcased her wide-ranging vocals, breaking out into original songs to emphasize the emotion in each scene. She does this, all the while giving enough space in her performance to allow herself to engage with the audience almost as a third party to her own life experiences as she narrates downstage.
The play gives audiences the opportunity to sit in and experience what life was once like for a young girl who grew up in a Black family in Chicago through its culturally rich depiction, and meet the loved ones whose influence helped shape her life to becoming a featured talent in the Twin Cities.