Tara Ochs is a familiar face on the local theater scene, primarily known for her work as a longtime improviser with Dad’s Garage, as a frequent participant in shows at Agatha’s A Taste of Mystery, and for occasional appearances in more “legitimate” stage productions (most recently, “Lost in the Cosmos” at Theatrical Outfit).
A couple of years ago, she was one of several Atlanta actors to land small roles in the Oscar-winning film “Selma,” seen to greater advantage than many of them as the real-life Viola Liuzzo, a white wife and mother from Detroit who ventured to Alabama to take part in the historic 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In the process of driving a few of her fellow activists back to Selma, Liuzzo was ambushed, shot and killed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The experience of making the film — alongside the likes of producer/co-star Oprah Winfrey, no less — might have made for an amusing and entertaining behind-the-scenes kind of showbiz story about a theater performer who has paid her dues and finally gets a taste of working on a big Hollywood studio movie. But the solo show Ochs has now written isn’t titled “White Actress in Progress.”
Instead, it’s “White Woman in Progress.” Although it’s seasoned with quite a few amusing and entertaining passages, the 80-minute play mainly involves her research about Liuzzo, the noble and tragic circumstances of her life and death, and how portraying this “martyred catalyst for change” eventually compels Ochs to re-evaluate herself. With artistic director Heidi S. Howard at the helm, 7 Stages’ premiere production continues through April 9.
Lights up, and there’s Ochs, standing front and center in the company’s intimate studio space. “I’m afraid I might be a racist,” she confesses. Lights out. “No, wait,” she exclaims, “That isn’t the end!” It’s only the beginning, to be sure, and yet, in another sense, by the time the show does end some 79 minutes later, sadly enough, that opening line rings all the more true.
We don’t really need Ochs to remind us that there can be such “truth in comedy.” However open-minded or well-meaning, are all whites the beneficiaries of “privilege,” unwittingly prejudiced as a result of their upbringings in a society marred by “systemic racism” and “cultural appropriation”?
Along her journey to self-realization — or her “period of awkward self-examination,” as Ochs puts it — the actress embodies a multitude of characters, both past and present: herself as a young girl and her mother; Liuzzo and her grown daughter; a pretentious New York magazine editor and a bigoted Southern sheriff. In her most touching moment, she’s a black spectator on the set of “Selma.” At her funniest, she’s the imaginary Dr. Racism, a “creepy amalgamation” of all her disconcerting research.
From one extreme to another, Ochs holds our attention with a singular purpose, and Howard’s direction maintains a consistently steady momentum. The production values are minimal in terms of scenery or costumes, but Anney Reese’s video design and Michael Haverty’s projections are exceedingly effective.
It’s too bad that the show doesn’t include any of Ochs’ clips from “Selma” (presumably due to copyright issues). Then again, whatever the film’s impact on her career as a professional actress, that’s less the point of “White Woman in Progress” than the personal discoveries she makes as a human being.
“White Woman in Progress”
Through April 9. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturday (April 1 only). $15-$22.50. 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave., Atlanta. 404-523-7647, www.7stages.org.
Bottom line: A thought-provoking comedy about some sad truths.