Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 1999
Now don’t start singing the Beatles song… This play is called “OO-Bla-Dee” (not ‘Ob-La-Di’ or ‘Ob-La Da’) and though, yes, life goes on, the source of this title is an African American woman, not two white English men.
Actor/playwright Regina Taylor was inspired by Mary Lou Williams, a jazz pianist/composer/arranger who wrote an early bebop tune called “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee.” Williams was a groundbreaker, a woman with her own band, who played/arranged for the likes of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. It was musical trailblazers like that who ignited Taylor’s imagination and lent their stories to the fascinating fictional characters in “Oo-Bla-Dee.”
“I was in a New York club with a friend, and her great-aunt was playing,” says Taylor. “And she started telling me about these all-female jazz bands in the forties. I’d never heard of them: The Swinging Sweethearts of Rhythm, Ina Ray Hutton (‘the blonde bombshell’) and her Melodiers. Some are still around, but it’s as if they’d never existed. It was okay for a woman to be a singer or play the piano, but not to bang on drums or drool on a horn or pluck a cello between her legs.”
In “Oo Bla Dee,” Taylor’s jazz players do all of the above. And more.
“The play is about the exploration of new territory,” Taylor explains.
It’s set in 1946, just at the end of the second World War. Black men are returning home from battle, ready to settle down with their dutiful little wives.
“But the women have stepped out,” says Taylor, “and over certain borders, into this quote-unquote male territory. The tune and the times have changed. They’ve moved on from the lyricism of swing, and are now playing this jagged, discordant type of music, which later came to be known as bebop. This music was derived from anarchy, protest. Black musicians were consciously making choices to define themselves. Swing had been taken over by the white mainstream; Benny Goodman was ‘the king of swing.’ So black people were reinventing themselves through this new music.”
In the play, a quartet of black, female St. Louis jazz-makers (Evelyn Waters and the Diviners) is determined to get their big break in Chicago. Their journey is simultaneously physical, musical and spiritual.
When the play premiered in Chicago this past March, just before moving to the La Jolla Playhouse (through June 20), Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune said “it doesn’t fit neatly into any dramatic category. For most of its nearly three hours, it free-ranges all over… mixing realism and surrealism, naturalism and expressionism, comic and tragic, dramatic and melodramatic, classical and bebop in a giddy ride of theatricalism…”
Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times called it “a play in the form of a dazzling sound collage… [with] fiendishly inventive orchestration…in which human voices and the voices of instruments, the tempo of the times and the tempo of the characters converge…”
Sure, there were a few complaints: “an abrupt, rushed finale,” “too much sassy, back-talking ‘girls with attitude’ repartee” (that from a woman!), but the reviewers were clearly impressed by this inventive, time-bending, rhythmic, textured, harmoniously language-rich composition.
Taylor herself is low-key, but she is obviously pleased by the critics’ response and interpretation.
“Language does function as an instrument in the play,” she agrees. “It’s written in three movements. And each of the characters take on the tonality of instruments. Gin, the horn player, has these arias, as it were, with extended phrases that wail and screech. Lulu is the drummer, and her speech is very percussive, with fast, banging consonants. Ruby, with her red dress, is doing the two-step with her bass. Hers is a very mothering, femme type of energy, elongated, understated, in the same tonality of the bass sound. The piano player and group leader, Evelyn, has passages that are plays on the others. You know how a piano can take on a different form. Her riffs take on different characteristics.”
You could say the same about the career of Regina Taylor, actor, writer and director (for “Oo Bla Dee,”she serves as co-director, with Susan V. Booth of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, which commissioned the piece).
Her plays (including “Escape from Paradise,” which she also performs, “Watermelon Rinds,” “Inside the Belly of the Beast,” “Jenine’s Diary”) have been presented at the Goodman (where she is an associate artist), the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, the Humana Festival in Louisville.
Her Broadway performances include Juliet, Cecilia in “As You Like It,” and Witch #1 in “Macbeth.” Off-Broadway, she appeared in Michael Greif’s production of “Machinal,” and as Ariel in “The Tempest,” among others.
On the big screen, she was seen in “Clockers,” “Losing Isaiah,” “A Family Thing” and “Courage Under Fire” (with Denzel Washington). But perhaps she is best known for her multiple-award-winning role of Lilly Harper in the TV series “I’ll Fly Away.”
The theme that runs through all her work is a search for liberation and release. “People are on this road,” she says, “taking this journey, trying to go outside the borders and find freedom.”
Ever since she started writing in her Dallas childhood home, and acting at Southern Methodist University, Regina Taylor has been on her own journey, venturing outside the borders and taking grateful audiences along with her.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.