At OSF, Ashland, Regina Taylor's "Oo-Bla-Dee"
is a complex story of four black women in 1946, and their dreams of being be-bop
stars to rise above the restrictions placed on them by both their gender and
the color of their skin.
The play opens with Gin Del Sol and her sax against a bright blue square in the background. A woman floats across the top sitting on a crescent moon. She says her name is Mother Time, but you can call me Luna. She lays out the historical landscape of the play, just after WWII when the men are beginning to come home. Gin's man has left after promising to marry her when he gets out of the Army Air Corps. She needs to breathe, and takes off north. The background square becomes a moving railroad track as jazz rhythms and a whistle mark the motion of the train.
It's backstage at a club in St. Louis when Gin shows up to play with Evelyn Waters and the Divines. We meet the drummer Lulu. She's a wild woman with a bottle of bourbon, a joint, and she has to run out to get her numbers before the show. Ruby was married with a child. She had always wanted to play in a symphony, but in 1946 spots weren't open to women, especially black women. Now she plays upright bass, and when her music wanted more and more of her time, her husband took the child and left. Evelyn was a song writer and piano player who was trying to resurrect her career, and Shorty was their manager. He was secretly in love with Evelyn who was in love with his brother Leroy, who had gone to France to fight the war.
Gin tells us "You have to follow wherever the music leads." They recall the Bette Davis film "Now Voyager" where she leaves her lover and her life and can't turn back. "At least she's living by her own rules." Gin's just looking for a little space in her life. People tell her to stay in her place, so she took to the air; music lifts her up. When she meets Evelyn, it's sparks and fire. Evelyn has always played with men and she told them what to do. She has trouble with everyone. She and Shorty go at it constantly. He holds everything together through all the cat fights. Shorty does what needs to be done.
Part 2 opens with newsreel footage of WWII. The atomic bomb explodes. There are pictures of concentration camp survivors, Hiroshima after the bomb, and black soldiers. There's homecoming segregation, a lynching, and another picture of the mushroom cloud. Shorty's driving the girls to Chicago for their big gig and record audition. He drives "within the limits" and recounts being stopped by whites in Georgia. When Evelyn laid low in the car, he got out and danced and sang for them. He did what he needed to do to survive. They got stopped by whites again, and Shorty gets out. Evelyn has a gun now, and they all arm themselves. He finally returns, quiet, disheveled and they move on.
Gin is looking for that perfect note where she can step in between time. She recalls Bessie Smith where you can walk into the music and to space and freedom. A soldier comes into the club. He's looking for the girl he had promised to marry before he left for the war. Both Lulu and Ruby want him, but we find out he's actually looking for Gin. She's on the verge of her new life. She wants that note and can't go back. Luna has been beaten. A gang of white men lynch the black soldier.
We have flashbacks from Ruby and Lulu from 1966 to the past. Gin has disappeared, Shorty and Evelyn married. We sweep to the climax of that night in 1946 in this riveting drama of hopes and dreams, ecstasy, racism, and sexism that is Timothy Bond's production of "Oo-Bla-Dee" in The Bowmer Theater at OSF Ashland. It continues throught October 28.