We often hear about actors transforming themselves to play a role. What happens when the role transforms the actor? That is Tara Ochs’ story.
Ochs appeared in the 2014 Oscar-winning film “Selma,” the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery to secure equal voting rights for African Americans. She played Viola Liuzzo, the lone white woman to be killed during the Civil Rights Movement, and that role led her on a path of self-discovery and enlightenment. She has written a one-woman show called “White Woman in Progress” which opens at 7 Stages next week.
“I’m still going back and forth [on the title],” she told City Lights host Lois Reitzes. “It can feel divisive: ‘I’m a white woman, you’re a black woman,’ where it’s putting these labels, and we get tense about labels. It’s not an easy process to dig into this.”
The actor has been developing the show with 7 Stages over the past year. The show has Ochs portraying more than 20 different characters, including her mother, herself at age 8, and even some of her “Selma” castmates and director Ava Duvernay.
“That was a scary one. I don’t want to do a caricature, I want to portray a human. She’s a person that I put on a pedestal,” Ochs said.
“[The show is about] this idea of this experience of white privilege,” she said, “of living in your own personal filter that, to some degree, you’ll never be able to get past.”
The show parallels Liuzzo’s story with Ochs’ own journey to finding her way into that character, which included a lot of research. In telling those stories, Ochs found that she had to portray not only herself and her heroes, but those who had opposed the movement for Civil Rights as well.
“I can’t say that I’ve truly understood some of the people I’ve experienced and been exposed to in this process,” Ochs said of the show’s extensive character work, “but that’s the point of non-violence principals. You can’t ask someone to hear you unless you’re willing to hear them. It’s a starting place, anyway.”
In conversation and in the show itself, Ochs acknowledges the difficulty of the subject matter.
“Race is part of the conversation, we can’t pretend it’s not there,” she said. “But we can acknowledge that there’s parts of it that are uncomfortable to discuss and that we’re willing to handle that uncomfortableness because that’s the least of the problems in order to make change, right?”
"White Woman in Progress" is at 7 Stages March 17 through April 9.