Edgar Oliver is a memorable man. I feel as though I could listen to him recite a portion of the phone book and throughout it I would find humor, joy, and sorrow. That’s not to say he has a terribly wide range of vocal inflection, but rather quite the opposite. Somehow he treats every word nearly the same way, with the same great deal of care and dramatics, and yet an entire world opens itself up among the syllables.
In Attorney Street, Oliver’s third solo storytelling show, he explores a new chapter of his life in a new apartment on the Lower East Side after being made to leave the small East Village SRO he’d remained for decades. With this major change, he also tracks other shifts in his life and surroundings: a vacant lot he cherished is now no more, a young boy that awakened desire in him as a child now has a child of his own, and so on.
I have not seen Oliver’s previous shows in this trilogy. Attorney Street was my first experience of his unique public remembering. His two other shows East 10th Street and In The Park seem to cover similar ground, speaking of his isolated childhood in Savannah, Georgia, his tender relationships with old friends and aspects of the city around him, and moments of loneliness and yearning for affection.
One segment near the middle of the show illustrated the wide range of emotional experience to be found in Oliver’s words. In one of his unexpected and delightful moments of humor, he recalls a time that “Mark the Beggar,” who he was vaguely familiar with, showed up at his doorstep and kissed him. With this kiss, he “blew a huge shotgun blast of freebase cocaine deep into [Oliver’s] lungs.” The surprise of such a detail had everyone tittering, but as soon as we were done laughing, it was explained how Mark took Oliver’s drug-addled self out begging. “If anyone gave [Mark] a dollar, he would put his arm around me and with his other hand he would gesture to me and say, ‘And what about something for my boy?’” The situation seems absurd and still fairly comical until he follows with, “That made me so happy … So very happy to be somebody’s boy.” Now, a sense of poignancy replaced laughter.
Covering many of the same topics over the course of several shows could seem redundant, but Oliver appears to escape this. He’s able to mix new thoughts and experiences with already-discussed points like his hometown of Savannah and his beloved place on East 10th Street. Attorney Street in particular is colored by his father, who died of a morphine overdose before Oliver was born. He tells us he spent 16 years of life life believing his father died when Oliver was a child until he learned the truth. As he delves into male lovers, friends, and authority figures he’s had brushes with in his life, it becomes clear that he is still learning how this death affected him, how learning you never knew someone can send you into an emptiness you’re determined to fill.
It also adds a weight to Oliver’s despair at buildings and plants in his city that he’s realized are disappearing; they, too, will unknowingly leave him. This capacity for reexamining one’s life and behaviors for new discoveries can be an inspiring act for artists to look to in this post-election world; when creation as usual may seem fruitless. Look to what has already happened, and you may find something new.
Though solo shows about one’s own life can sometimes swing towards the self-indulgent side of things, Oliver manages to, in a way, touch on the power and unique quality of explaining one’s own life to an audience. “No one will ever see me as I see myself,” he proclaims, several times. “How beautiful I am sometimes, like a vision there in the mirror, as lithe and handsome as any golden man.”
Some describe Oliver as having a “gothic” quality, a term that implies a dark and gloomy tone. As much as his stark and dimly-lit storytelling can be chilling, it is also incredibly sentimental and caring. It manages to be such even without the musical interludes that accompanied the piece, which seemed to unnecessarily impose emotion on what was already stirring. Oliver does have a lot of sadness in him, but are we, in our jaded cynicism, possibly also frightened by the act of someone so plainly pleading for love and grasping at what is no longer there for him?
It’s refreshing how Attorney Street ends. Near the show’s conclusion, Oliver delivers a repetitive message imploring various versions of, “I’m afraid I’ll never write again. But that boy is out there still. … Some day he will write of sorrow and love.” It could have ended there, looking to the future writers of the world to take up their pens in his legacy. But it doesn’t. In the final segment, he recalls a time he had to urinate in a Dublin alleyway, doing so in full view rather than up against the wall. A man kindly suggests he turn the other way. “Anybody with a daddy would know that,” he remarked. “He must think I’m a fool. A daddyless fool.” Curtain. No conclusion. At least not yet, for Oliver still has more life to live.
“Attorney Street” by Edgar Oliver, directed by Randy Sharp, continues through November 19 at Axis Theater, One Sheridan Square.