Two River Theater in Red Bank was recently the host to a free live panel for its members in order for them to introduce its new production, “Oo-Bla-Dee,” which will be running from June 8-30.
Moderated by WBGO 88.3 FM’s news director Doug Doyle, the panel on that evening of May 8 was comprised of the writer of both the play and lyrics Regina Taylor, Diedre L. Murray who wrote the music, and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
“Oo-Bla-Dee” follows Evelyn Waters and the Diviners, an all-black, all-female jazz band, while they travel from St. Louis to Chicago as they set up a record deal following the conclusion of World War II.
Written by Golden Globe-winner Regina Taylor, she said she got the idea after a friend of hers took her to see her great grand aunt play the piano in Manhattan.
“She was talking to me about these all female bands that she used to play with. I love jazz, but I hadn’t heard of any of these women,” Taylor said. “So, I wrote it down and went to the library the next day and started looking up these great players. Mary Lou Williams, Valaida Snow, and I was working, trying to figure out what I wanted to do for my next piece.”
After setting up a luncheon with multiple older female jazz musicians, Taylor started to write down each of their individual stories and work them into her own, original play.
“[It’s] about women trying to own their own space, to own their own voices, to be heard,” she said. “Which is something that from the very first moment we take our first breath, it’s an issue. I wanted to write about that, through the lens perspective of music. These musicians are trying to find their voices through new music, this beep-bop, and as the men are at war, this is the time you have Rosie the Riveter, the female baseball leagues and these all female bands because it was OK for women to play piano, but it was not OK for them to be plucking strings between your legs, to be slobbering over a horn, and [they] are way too weak to be playing some drums. So, these women were daring to own their own space, find their own way, interpret themselves the way they wanted to be interpreted in the time of 1946.”
Dealing with certain themes in the production such as race roles, gender roles and the stereotypes surrounding each of these, the team wanted to make sure that they brought on someone who could relate these themes into the music of the play. Murray, an Obie Award-winner for her 1999 hit “Running Man,” seemed like the perfect choice for the production.
“I knew it was about women in jazz, and I am a woman in jazz,” Murray said. “I am a jazz musician, so basically everything that I do is coming from a jazz perspective, whether it sounds like it or not. The way that I think about jazz is that it’s there are certain rules to it, but there’s also feelings. There is also a psychology to that type of music.”
Looking from the directional aspect of where the show would want to hit home for audiences, Santiago-Hudson, who recently received a Tony Award nomination for directing the best revival of a play in 2017 for “Jitney,” was asked to return to Two River Theater, where he has a long standing relationship. Santiago-Hudson continues to use a certain mentality when directing.
“I’m a child of observation, I was a curious kid. The people who I observed living in a segregated community all looked like me,” Santiago-Hudson said. “I was fascinated by the incredible integrity they had through whatever hardship they faced. I always wanted to mind that through every character that I saw or directed that, or interpreted myself – I always wanted to go to the root of that integrity that so depressed me or let me make a way through the world and I knew that I was worthy of every inch of space that I took up, because I saw those people allude that kind of wonderful sense of being. I just thought it was very necessary when I saw so much work and I see people not understand what’s important to people that look like me.”
Santiago-Hudson felt that he has a specific duty whenever he is directing a production that is so personal to him.
“When I direct something, I want to make sure that if I don’t get anything else right, I want to get right that we’re an incredible, magnificent, disdainful, beautiful people,” he said. “And that’s what I try to make sure that I instill in my cast, and that’s what I’m always trying to pull out. That gets so overlooked, because the world knows black people from what people say we are, whether it’s in the history books, on the television or in a newspaper – other people said this about us. I just challenge my actors to do that.”
“Oo-Bla-Dee” begins performances from June 8 – 30 at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank. For more information about the production or for tickets, visit www.tworivertheater.org, or call 732-345-1400.