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Darian Wigfall. Courtesy of St. Lou Fringe
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Photograph by Kimberly N. Photography
"If you got a man drowning in a lake, and you got a rope in your hands, you don't debate about whether or not you throw a man a rope. If he's already drowning, throw the damn rope. Pull him out of the water, then you debate about it,” implores Claude, a homeless resident of NOLA’s 9th ward. “Keep a man alive!"
His voice booms across the studio theatre; the lights suddenly cut. This voice is coming from a white woman, 4’11, with a sunny, heart-shaped face.
The disquieting magic of The Rope in Your Hands, Siobhan O’Loughlin’s one-woman tour de force at this year’s St. Lou Fringe Festival, is that one forgets just who’s on stage. Is it Claude, a 58-year-old black man grappling with gross injustice, or a Japanese jazz musician, Nobu Ozaki, or a righteous preacher, Keith Sam, who blames Katrina on “recent immorality” in the inimitable French Quarter?
It is, in fact, all three figures, and many, many more, as O’Loughlin transmogrifies on stage in a New York minute (or, rather, a New Orleans brass-band beat). Presenting 13 characters in total, she reveals a spectrum of nuanced, complicated personae, based on hours of real-life interviews. Gutting houses in the Crescent City while on her college spring break in 2007, O’Loughlin assembled a plethora of perspectives on a portable old-school tape deck. Years later, these voices became The Rope in Your Hands, and went on to reap acclaim at performances in New York, Edinburgh, and Washington, DC.
On June 20, Rope was first performed in St. Louis, where its implicit themes of gross racial inequities and cross-cultural stupefaction prove more exigent than ever—but seven months after the Ferguson riots, less than a year after Michael Brown. Alert that the play’s powerful message would resonate in the Gateway to the West (concomitant gateway drug to all manner of indignation), O’Loughlin teamed up with St. Louis’s Darian Wigfall, creative mastermind and founder of Artists as Tutors, a tutoring program in North City, for a public, narrative-driven discussion forum Tuesday, June 24. This forum is part of the St. Lou Fringe Dark Days series of free, interactive workshops “focused on hands-on exploration of culture in St. Louis.”
To thespians, a theatre is deemed “dark” if it is absent of performance. But rare is meaningful discourse patently absent tangible drama. St. Lou Fringe Dark Days’ Ferguson/Katrina forum likely augurs a bit of both.
“We both agreed that conversation is one of the most powerful tools in the world to change someone's mind,” says Wigfall of his and O’Loughlin’s serendipitous meeting. “I told her about my experience organizing here and learning from a guy from the Advancement Project in New York about how to tell an effective story. I told her that I have been hosting a conversation already, ‘Heal the Divide,’ since January and that this would be an extension of that ongoing grassroots conversation. My main objective is to tell my story about the first time I encountered racism by police and link that with what happened in Ferguson. After that, I'll ask the audience to tell their experience with race and hopefully recruit some people to the human rights movement that so many of us are involved in.”
Wigfall’s and O’Loughlin’s ongoing involvement in the #BlackLivesMatter movement over the last seven months paves the way for such intersectional dialogue. Tuesday evening, after Wigfall shares his first-person account of Ferguson, O’Loughlin will share her story of visiting New Orleans and the people she encountered there. These narratives will invite attendees to then tell their stories, collectively leading discussion until the end of the session.
Discussion can’t change the world overnight, but St. Lou Fringe wants get that process started by asking the question: how can we throw a rope to those who are drowning? This Tuesday evening, the answer is in the audience's hands.
The Rope in Your Hands runs Friday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, June 27 at 6 p.m. at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand. Tickets are available at stlfringe.com, or at Fringe Central Station in Strauss Park. St Lou Fringe Dark Days occur from June 17-27, at Public Media Commons in Grand Center, 3655 Olive St. Admission to St. Lou Fringe Dark Days is free and all are welcome; for a list of events, go here.