Welcome Home, Onyi Okoli
A local performer and playwright returns to Baltimore for her stage debut
The stage at the Strand is a blocky, unwieldy thing--painted black and scuffed with the plodding tread of actors past, it divides the small, dimly lit room in half. In order to reach the seats on the far side, one must clamber over the platform. A quick glance around the space reveals chalk-drawn scenery on the walls and haphazardly hung stage lights. The effect is one of run-down intimacy, and the maroon and black color scheme only adds to the oppressive air of the theater. It's the perfect setting for the debut of Charmed, I'm Sure!, the post-collegiate production by Baltimore native Onyi Okoli. The small, cramped space lends itself beautifully to the equally concise production that consists of six monologues, written and performed by Okoli, about coming of age on North Avenue as a second-generation African immigrant.
Each of the six monologues deals with a different topic, ranging from dating narcissists to racial tension. Okoli discusses her shopping addiction, revealing a fear of being shipped back to Africa as well as a more common fear of menial work when she spends scholarship money on a pair of "baby-blue boots." She also details her dream of becoming the next black fashion supermodel, learns to wield her physical assets, and sneaks away from Mama to dally with boys in cars.
Okoli cuts a fine figure in the spotlight--tall and lean, she stomps fiercely around the stage. A clever actress, she possesses a sixth sense for timing and tone, delivering lines with playful edge. And she slides in and out of characters effortlessly, one minute a spoiled, fashion-obsessed teenage version of herself, the next the lovable wannabe rapper Blackie. She engages the audience, maintaining eye contact and committing to every line. No matter the role--mother, father, pre-teen, octogenarian, thug--Okoli is utterly believable.
While the University of Southern California graduate exercises her prodigious acting chops in this 90-minute one-woman show, her writing and narrative choices leave much to be desired. The monologues are more sequence of events than fully realized story. A boiled-down version of the play would read something like this: Okoli loves her "some baby-haired men," Okoli spends her rent money and nearly gets evicted, Okoli befriends an elderly theater-lover, Okoli hates her four white roommates, Okoli wants to be a supermodel. In short, Okoli lives a unique but perfectly normal life.
Of the six monologues, only one, cleverly entitled "My Mama Monologue," had any emotional resonance. A thinly veiled, feel-good celebration of mother-daughter relationships, the scene pits Okoli against her mother Katrina, whose real-life presence at her daughter's debut performance was marked by wry smiles and rueful headshakes. Okoli's sexual awakening comes early; she dons "coochy-cut shorts" in an effort to win over her 13-year-old self's ideal man--an 18-year-old drug-dealer with a car. Her god-fearing mother thwarts her late-night rendezvous, but the experience only brings them closer together in a heart-warming kind of way.
Otherwise, a few standard morals fly off Okoli's tongue; a few superficial lessons gloss the otherwise gray and nondescript set-up of the show. Never once does she truly explore a meaningful connection with another human being, romantic or otherwise. Instead, the cast of characters take back seat to the narrator's own wants and desires, in a very human, but ultimately exhausting exercise in egotism.
The lack of coherent structure is too bad, because Okoli happens to be a talented actress and her monologues reveal a genuine, if rueful, affection for Baltimore and the people who populate her life. Charmed, I'm Sure! certainly lives up to its name, though the good will arises more as a response to the actress' warm audacity and skill as a performer than it does from the monologues themselves.
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Baltimore, MD 21201