Greta Oglesby sits in the living room of her house in Brooklyn Park just beaming, as though today were the day the Lord had made especially for her. Never mind that there is a dachshund jumping on the couch or the fact that she’s just returned from a run of Caroline, or Change in Syracuse, New York, and will soon leave for Florida to sing for a fundraiser. “It never feels like work,” she says. “I couldn’t live without it.”
But she did live without acting for a very long time. She traces the journey in Mama ’n Nem (Kirk House, $18)—that’s “mama and them” for non-African Americans—a new memoir about her family. There’s her cross-dressing cousin CeCe and an aunt whose womanizing husband was shot down one night (the aunt was suspiciously sanguine). And then there’s her preacher dad, who forbade secular music and even basketball (“I still don’t know why that was a sin”).
Her father opened four or five storefront churches in Chicago, and Oglesby sang in all of them. It would be years, however, before she showed up for her first audition with a Langston Hughes poem and a gospel tune. She had a husband, two kids, and a good job in accounting by then, along with stage fright. “I closed my eyes when I sang,” she says. “When I opened them, all these people had walked over to see who was singing.”
She was a full-time actress 11 years ago when her husband was called up to preach in Minneapolis. But her big break wouldn’t come until 2009, when she starred as the maid in Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change at the Guthrie Theater. Audiences loved her. Jeanine Tesori, the composer, told her, “We had no idea we were writing this for you.”
This month, she returns to the Guthrie to release her book on May 12 and star in Penumbra Theatre’s The Amen Corner, as a nun who suppresses her love for a man. Oglesby understands. It was years, after all, before she came to believe that “not all secular music is the devil’s music.” She smiles shyly and says, “We have to take our own paths.”
THREE RECOMMENDATIONS FROM GRETA
1. The new Eat Street Social on Nicollet Avenue. Great food, great ambiance, over-the-top service.
2. Love jazz vocals? Check out the Legends series at the Capri Theatre, a great jazz venue.
3. I love Dennis Spears’s new CD, Down on Broadway. He’s so good on Funny Girl, Showboat, etc.