“You’ve got to know which masks, how many masks you’re wearing before you can put it down and see your true self. Those that do, they know just how to slide in and out of it. How to make to spin inside it and out of it. How to spread their song all over that mask and make it one with the world, no matter how thick or thin the truth in that song might be.”
– legendary opera singer Sissieretta Jones in OLIO (1868-1933)
Every time I have declared the internet a graver impediment than asset to arts and culture, something comes along to renew my faith I will be wrong. That something came out of inspiration to commemorate Juneteenth with a listen to a live performance of Tyehimba Jess’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection OLIO, recorded at Manhattan’s Minetta Lane Theater this past Black History Month, transformed to a production of Audible Originals. Jess himself calls it an exploration of America’s unsung Black “sonic pioneers.”
Audible’s narrated and spoken word platform became my one concession to regular Amazon patronage last year; the physical labor and eye strain of reading and writing for my life necessitated new ways to consume all the literature I wanted to. I gave in to an Audible subscription, to switch books into my housework and office work background noise mix. Most books I really want to absorb are beyond the complexity level treadmill reading allowed. They are not just to pass the time. These works require focus.
So with Audible, I can say I have not only passed through works like Bernice McFadden’s Black Caucus of the American Library Association honoree Praise Song for the Butterflies and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, the National Book Award-winning novel represented by my wonderful literary agent. I can say I truly experienced them, soared into their worlds to live with the characters for awhile, and quite possibly heard the next greatest actors of our generation. I am in the middle of my University of Chicago colleague Amy Gentry’s new novel Last Woman Standing (A comedienne finds herself telling just as many sexual harassment stories as jokes). I finally started Gabrielle Union’s We’re Going to Need More Wine, which sat on my shelf for too long, merely flipped through rather than devoured.
I am embarrassed not to count as many plays and live theater performances in my history this year. However, a recent trip to New York City and hotel stay near Times Square reminded how much theater was once part of my life: Broadway, Off Broadway, community theater, friends’ performances in theaters and bars. I needed to do better. I was so happy to hear of OLIO‘s adaptation to a stage play, as it promised such opportunities for poets as Ntosake Shange’s for colored girls suggested which have never caught on beyond Def Poetry Jam Live (which I saw) and scarce others. Unfortunately, I was not in New York to catch OLIO Live when it ran. Blessedly, I saw a taped live performance as an option on Audible a few weeks ago. I added it to my list immediately and promised to listen soon. On Juneteenth, I decided to sit with my history and heritage via OLIO.
OLIO is a book designed to appear near to a work of art on a coffee table, including illustrations from It contains a collection of interlinked poetry adding up to stories that honor minstrel show performers, ragtime creation and African-Americans exploited by the entertainment industry. The text honors freed slaves, Fisk Jubilee Singers and Scott Joplin- including an interviewer’s rather lively search for stories of a less patrician and genteel Scott Joplin than history books portray. Tyehimba won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2017 for the book.
OLIO trails its anchoring true-life characters, the wildly famous “Blind Tom” Wiggins and Henry “Box” Brown, who turned slave origins into prodigious musical careers as a form of freedom in entertaining. Black female entertainers make an appearance as well, in opera singer Sissieretta “Sissie” Jones and sculptor Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis. These free Blacks endured a cost, as many 19th and 20th century Black performers did. Arguably, most still do now, in entertainment industries that segregate artists of color from mainstream distribution and exposure, resulting in alternative and grassroots paths to success and financial sustainability. The live theater performance enlivens these symbolic figures, into flesh before a typically engaged, responsive and vocal audience Black theater is known for accumulating.
I think what I appreciated most about OLIO Live was its musical score the literary text can not communicate, of course. It was done cautiously but perfectly onstage. In this music imagined and created by African Americans, as precursors to the exclusively American artforms of the blues and jazz, we hear the base sound of the background music to Hollywood’s first silent movies and country club dance mixers and 1920’s flapper jams. The performance ends on a setting of George Lam’s Sissieretta Jones, Carnegie Hall, 1902: O Patria Mia, with pianist Jeremy Gill and soprano Kayla White.
OLIO Live is structured as 14 chapters and the taped performance moves to an informative talkback with Jess. He frames his work in OLIO as a wish to use poetry, music and unsung heroes to create a “clapback” to American history as the masses encounter it. His onstage interview with moderator and performer Yahdon Israel also educates audiences on the poetic structures and forms the OLIO text employs, choices influenced by W.E.B. DuBois and his philosophy of double-consciousness of Black people in America.
Listen to OLIO Live free with Audible trial or using one credit for members, and enjoy this PBS interview with Jess below.
OLIO Live, performed in February 2019 at the Minetta Lane Theater
Written by Tyehimba Jess
Narrated by Piper Goodeve, Kayla White, Jaylene Clark Owens, Tyehimba Jess, David Pegram, Yahdon Israel and Esau Pritchett
1 hour and 18 minutes
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