Role Awakens Actress To New Reality
“Eight years ago I moved out to LA to become an actor,” says Tara Ochs, whose hometown is Pensacola, Florida. “I did quite a few commercials and I waited a whole lot of tables. I am the walking cliché.”
She ended the video with a plea: “Tell me where I should go. Tell me what music I should listen to. Tell me what I should be doing with my life.”
A character awakens ...Years later, Ochs was living in Atlanta and performing in local venues. In 2014, she was cast as Viola Liuzzo in the motion picture Selma. Liuzzo was a 39-year-old mother of five from Detroit who was martyred – the only white woman to be murdered during the civil rights movement.
The Liuzzo part was small, but the impact on Ochs was life changing: The pinnacle of her career triggered a profound awakening to the issue of race. Two days after Christmas 2014, the movie’s release date, Ochs blogged: “Racism. I can’t stop seeing it. And feeling responsible. And I HATE that. But I’m also glad for it.”
One dynamic that preyed upon Ochs’ insecurities was the values clash between Hollywood and the civil rights movement. It started with a sense of unworthiness and progressed into self-loathing as she met real-life civil rights leaders.
Then came the awards season; Selma received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, and was re-released shortly after its original release to honor the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches. Ochs soon found herself in a whirlwind of red carpets and shameful history as she traveled to Selma for the anniversary.
“I was just sort of getting dunked into this movement, but the very public and sexy side of it ... and it felt fake. It felt really gross. ‘Oh, this is all about me. How pretty do I look on TV?’ ... I kept feeling this divide between getting all this attention for this horrific, tragic time in history,” says Ochs. “So by the time I got back... I was just like... ‘I can’t keep on this Hollywood trajectory any more. It feels like such a lie. These folks involved in the movement, what they are doing feels so honest and true. So I think I’ve got to find a way to be part of that.’”
An actress awakensIn the midst of her confusion and turmoil, Ochs began an extended conversation with her friend and colleague Heidi S. Howard, artistic director of Atlanta’s 7 Stages Theatre. Ochs talked about quitting acting because she could not figure out how to act without feeling false. Howard’s response: Make a show about it.
“That’s a great idea, Heidi,” Ochs recalls telling her friend. “You have not been listening at all. I have to stop talking. White people have to stop talking. David Oyelowo (the actor who played Dr. Martin Luther King in the movie) said, ‘Do, don’t talk.’“
But Howard convinced Ochs that there is a type of talking that is doing, and over the course of two years Ochs wrote a one-woman play, White Woman in Progress. It debuted with Howard in the director’s chair March 17 at 7 Stages and ran through April 9.
The play, which opens with the line “I’m afraid I might be a racist,” explores Ochs’ social and racial awakening. Over 80 minutes, she embodies a host of characters including Viola Liuzzo, her own mother, herself as a girl, racist rednecks and Dr. Racism as she seeks to understand racism at increasingly deeper levels.
While Howard and Ochs judge the African-American reaction to the play as largely positive, some found it offensive. In trying to create conversations around the play, Howard heard from people of color. Howard says one colleague commented, “I just don’t need to explain it to another white girl again. It’s not my job to teach you our history.”
Ochs accepts the fact that some African Americans are offended.
“It speaks to a lack of listening to black voices,” she says. “Black voices would be the authority on the civil rights experience ... and these voices have not been listened to... ‘Oh, but if a white lady talks about it, then we’re all going to show up.’“
Awake and activeWriting and performing White Woman in Progress is not the only thing Ochs has done since her awakening. Her performance as Liuzzo led to speaking invitations. She is working with the New Georgia Project on voter registration and with Something New on the development of non-violence training.
Working on inherently racist systems is now Ochs’ focus.
“To me, that’s more productive than trying to hunt down a Klan rally and do what?” says Ochs. “Hug them? Shake them?”
Ochs and Howard did go to a “pro-white” rally last April at Georgia’s Stone Mountain. As it turned out, the two arrived late, and only caught the remnants of the gathering. Ochs’ blog entry the day after reveals not triumph, but exhaustion, frustration and confusion.
The two had brought a basket of flowers to share, but ended up not speaking to anyone. In thinking about Stone Mountain, Howard speaks to the possibility of connecting with anyone because of our common humanity. And for Ochs?
“I have to keep coming back to the core value, which is do I think people are evil? Or, do I think they’re inherently good? And if I believe they’re inherently good, and I believe love is going to prevail, and love begets love,” says Ochs, “then even to the very least of these I have to apply that measure.”
For more information about White Woman in Progress, visit 7Stages.org.