Feature photo: Jessica Johnson and Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. in Oleanna at the Walnut Street Theatre
-by Marialena Rago
“You want unlimited power.”
Oleanna, now at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio 3, centers on power; who has it and who is it used against? In the era of Times Up and #MeToo, the play still has a lot of relevance and insight into the power dynamics of men and women, though it was written in 1992 shortly after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas debate.
Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Mamet foreshadowed much of today’s news themes in this two-person drama. Oleanna centers on student, Carol, and her professor, John. Carol, played by Jessica Johnson, confronts her professor about her grades and lack of understanding the material he is teaching. John, played by Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., is about to receive tenure and is in the process of buying a new house in a better school district for his son. As the meeting between professor and student goes on, Carol begins to feel uncomfortable when John puts his hands on her, tells her an inappropriate joke and tries to coerce her into coming to his office on a regular bias so he can teach her better. If she does come to his office, then her final grade will be an A.
Carol sends a letter to the tenure committee about this encounter. Everything John worked so hard for is going up in smoke and now he is the one that is confused. The characters’ speech patterns and constant back and forth show this confusion and the need for power. John is always speaking over Carol, but in the final two acts Carol is in charge of the situation.
As an audience member, you can’t help but think- did the professor really do anything wrong? Should we just believe that the act had malicious intent because the victim feels victimized? Yet, even if a touch isn’t sexual to the person doing the touching, the one who is being touched can see the gesture in a different way. The inappropriate joke could be taken out of context. Is the proposition of an A for private lessons just a teacher genuinely wanting to help a student? You see both sides of the issue and perhaps even ping-pong as to who you stand with.
In Walnut Street Theatre’s production the two leads are both black actors. In the movie, the original production, and 2009 revival, the actors were white. Whether the casting was intentional or simply because these are two of the theatre’s most talented actors, Hobbs and Johnson both bring these characters to life on deeper level. Not only are gender and class a factor in accusations (both past and present), race could also be looked at in the “he said”/”she said” plot.
Throughout Oleanna, the audience sees the pain of both characters. In the final act, however, it becomes clear to the theater-goers who should be punished for their actions. Unfortunately, in today’s news, sometimes this isn’t always clear. It is an inside look at the world we are living in today and the consequences of one’s word against another’s.
Oleanna is at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio 3 now until February 17th.