For approximately five years, I worked in close physical proximity to Kathy Y. Wilson at CityBeat, sometimes editing her column, “Your Negro Tour Guide.” Wilson has a distinctive voice — both in person and in print. She’s loud and sassy when you’re within earshot, and she’s thought-provoking, even incendiary, on the page. Her rants in CityBeat between 2000 and 2006 attracted and irritated readers. Many of them were collected in a 2004 book of her essays, NPR commentaries and more.
Now she’s onstage, channeled through actress Torie Wiggins, a CCM drama grad, whose one-woman Fringe show at Media Bridges channels Wilson and more: Wiggins not only captures the joy and sorrow of Wilson’s words, she re-creates some of the personas that Wilson used, like a fast-talking woman demanding a hair-weave-and-nails makeover in 30 minutes or another who explains the mindset behind “talking black to the screen” at movie theaters.
There’s humor, too, in the interspersed sections of “Versus” that provide interludes throughout the 55-minute performance: “You have Seinfeld, we have Rock. … We have James Brown, you have Elvis Presley.” It’s a great device that had Wiggins’ audience nodding and saying, “Mm-hmm.”
But the best parts of Wiggins’ performance happen when she takes on Wilson’s more impassioned material: “Lemme holla at you today,” she begins, delivering the writer’s contemporary take (“A BeBop for MLK”) on the “I Have a Dream” speech — she calls it “I had a dream.” It’s a vision of unity and peace that ends with diverse people joining arms and singing “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” With that Wiggins raises an eyebrow, fixes a smirk on her audience and finishes, “Then I woke up.”
There are a few Cincinnati references, especially a touching Mother’s Day letter to Angela Leisure, mother of Timothy Thomas, whose shooting by a white police officer pulled the pin on the grenade of local riots in 2001. But many of Wilson’s CityBeat columns had more universal messages: In “O Brotha, Where Art Thou?” Wilson took on black males ages 13-55, saying, “You’re scaring me,” referring to them killing one another. “It’s like a snake eating its tail,” she observed. With increasing emotion and anger, Wiggins presents Wilson’s point: “People died so you could be free to be better. But today you’re killing each other and it can’t get much worse.” Then she brings it home: “Let’s make love. Let’s make it better.”
I suppose that Wiggins and her director Jeff Griffin have assembled a more palatable version of Wilson than you might get from reading her complete body of work. But they have certainly captured her vibrant prose, her strident, self-righteous attitude, and her zeal to say things that others have hesitated to discuss.
That was the power of Wilson’s writing, and it comes to life in Wiggins’ performance. Wilson was at the opening night performance I attended on Thursday; her raucous laughter from the back of the room reminded me how she could disrupt the office and make us think at the same time. But it was the words and thoughts erupting from Wiggins’ performance that reminded me of Wilson’s powerful voice. It was good to hear it again.
— Rick Pender