Ebony Marshall-Oliver became involved in theater after a friend suggested she audition for a local play.
That was the first production of Rudy Eastman and Joe Rogers’ musical Alice Wonder at Jubilee Theatre in 2002. She was cast and began a journey that included studying for two years at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, working a multiple-year national tour of Seussical the Musical and returning to North Texas, where she has been frequently cast at Jubilee, Lyric Stage and other theaters.
But she says she knew there was one challenge that she should face before she considered herself a well-rounded actor: a one-woman show. She got that opportunity when Jubilee artistic director Tre Garrett cast her in Charlayne Woodard’s play Pretty Fire, which opened the 2012-2013 season at the downtown Fort Worth theater.
In that show, Marshall-Oliver played 24 characters in the first work of the playwright’s autobiographical trilogy, using characters from her life — mostly women — to tell the story of American civil rights as viewed through the eyes of a young girl coming of age in a non-Southern setting: Albany, N.Y.
Through family members in the South, she learned of racial injustice and wasn’t exempt from it in New York, all of which fed her passion for activism. The title, Pretty Fire, refers to a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning.
For Marshall-Oliver, a native of Louisiana, this was the acting class that she desired. She had taken a break from acting and then her husband convinced her it was time to jump back in with full gusto.
“I was starting to question where I was going,” she says. “It was time to do a one-person showcase. … [Garrett] was great at letting me be me and finding all those characters. He trusted me, and that made me trust myself.”
Marshall-Oliver won critical and audience praise for that performance. She won an award from the Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum for outstanding performance by an actress. Garrett had concerns about the commercial appeal of a one-person show, but it was one of the bestselling plays in Jubilee’s history.
She gets to repeat that success with the second play in the trilogy, Neat, which opens Jubilee’s 2013-14 season. (There is a preview at 8 p.m. Thursday; the show opens Friday.) The third play, In Real Life, will be performed in the 2014-15 season, Garrett says, again with Marshall-Oliver.
Jubilee has also presented Woodard’s multiple-character work Flight; and don’t be surprised if another one-woman play of hers, The Night Watcher, appears there at some point, too.
The title, Neat, refers to the nickname of one of Woodard’s aunts in Savannah, Ga., whose brain was damaged in a childhood accident. The main character, standing in for Woodard, is a teenager in this play, and she observes bigotry, racism and discrimination of the sort directed at the mentally challenged, through Neat and the other characters.
“My struggle is to make her human and not a caricature,” Marshall-Oliver says of Neat. “In this play, there’s a maturity that Woodard did not have in Pretty Fire. It’s about how Neat’s outlook on life shapes her views and her identity.”
The play has 21 characters and, as in Pretty Fire, Marshall-Oliver doesn’t make any costume changes to distinguish them. It’s about subtle changes in tone, expression and voice.
“I have to have a specific character in mind when I’m creating them,” she says. “Either I know them or I’ve seen them on TV, that helps me with physicality.”
As for taking her craft to the next level, she says her main goal is not to disappoint her director, Garrett. Considering that he cast her again and has plans for her to carry through the third play, she doesn’t need to worry about that.
She certainly hasn’t disappointed her fans.