Anyone who has ever worked in the theater knows this truth: The theater may leave you with empty pockets but your heart will always be full.
A full heart is what belongs to Marti Gobel, the spectacular actor from Milwaukee who has graced stages for years.
She just returned from what she describes as a "life changing" tour in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Gobel, along with Suzan Fete and Brandy Kline of Renaissance Theatreworks, traveled to South Africa to conduct workshops, perform the play "Neat" which was produced at Renaissance, and to teach. For Renaissance it was a chance to reach out with its mission of female-oriented theatrical excellence.
But for Gobel it was a sojourn to the land of her ancestral birth and the kind of thing that touched every part of her being.
She was the first black person to perform in the Port Elizabeth Opera House, the oldest theater on the African continent. To help understand the magnitude of her experience it can be noted that the opera house is located on Whites Road Central in Port Elizabeth.
"I understand discrimination and I know about the end of apartheid," she said recently over coffee at the lakefront Colectivo. "But to see this firsthand was and experience that just about knocked me off my feet. Most of the time, in restaurants and such, I was the only African-American person being served. All the others were serving or cooking. It was an amazing feeling. I think what elevated me above the others was the fact that I am an American and an artist."
"Neat" is a one-woman play, with Gobel playing 24 different parts. It’s an emotional roller coaster that tells the story of a young girl who grows from a child into a smart-mouthed teenager and ends up as a feminine force for black pride.
"The first night I did the play they had to hold the curtain," she said. "They brought in busloads of people and it was a very diverse audience. I’ve never seen an audience like that. They were on the front edge of their chairs, talking to each other and hanging on every word. This is an emotional play and they were wrapped up in the words. When it ended, with an impassioned cry, there was total silence. Then I heard a ripple through the audience that sounded like 'ayye.' Then they applauded. I’ve never seen an audience like that. Never."
Gobel also taught workshops with students who ranged in age from children to people in their mid-60s.
"It was such an eye-opening experience," she said. "I was thrilled to find out that a lot of the African-American traditions in this country, like storytelling and the volume and passion with which we speak when telling a story or a joke, have their roots in African tradition.
"I was so loved," she continued with her usual modesty. "If I’m ever going to feel like a star, that was it. They were so hungry for me and so open to me. It was unbelievable and exhausting."
The experience for Gobel was shared with Fete and Kline, who also taught workshops. Fete shared some of the history of "Neat."
"Learning about the bravery of South African miners inspired a young girl (the playwright), during the civil rights movement in the U.S., to become someone who worked for change, (and she) became an actor and ultimately wrote a play about her experience and we brought that story to the origin of its inspiration – the people of South Africa. It turned out to be a very powerful experience for everyone involved."
Both Fete and Kline are white and race is an integral part of this journey for Gobel. She is a woman with immense talent, matched by her intellect and her sensitivity. And she was ripe for this kind of experience.
"It was life changing," she said. "I feel incredibly frustrated that the African-Americans and Africans are so oppressed in this day and time. We are the most discriminated people in the world. To be in Africa, where my roots began, to see them still so much at the bottom. It was rocking to me. Especially because I don’t feel held down. Not at all."
What she feels, obviously is a heart full of ... something. Something very special and personal.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published Dec. 7, 2013
We all know what a "Scrooge" is: a bitter, hateful penny-pincher with not an ounce of fun, joy or charity in his cold, cold heart. Well, watch your opinion change if you are lucky enough to see the Milwaukee Rep's 38th consecutive production of that classic holiday tale, "A Christmas Carol," at the glorious Pabst Theater.
Published Dec. 5, 2013
'Tis the season to be jolly. But what does it mean for something ike a city or a county? What makes the Milwaukee family jolly or happy? As the old year leaves at the end of holiday season Dave Begel is trying to get a handle on what we need to be a happy place.
Published Dec. 3, 2013
Has football changed so much that when your starting quarterback goes down you might as well toss your chips on the felt and walk away from the table?
Published Nov. 30, 2013
Christmas stories need a moment to galvanize an audience and make the story a memorable one, maybe bring some tears and possibly make people think a little differently about the holiday. Something like George Bailey getting the money. Or when Santa proves to be the real thing in "Miracle on 34th Street." On that score - and on every other - "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" hits the mark.
Published Nov. 28, 2013
Thanksgiving is here, so here's some of what Dave Begel is thankful for, not just today, but most of the time.
Published Nov. 27, 2013
During Ryan Braun's news conference, he talked about how he wasn't going to get into specifics about what had happened and that he was only focused on moving forward. The problem with that answer to questions from reporters is that it makes Braun continue to look like he's a liar.
Published Nov. 26, 2013
I know this is the season when we are supposed to be thankful for stuff. And I want to play, too. I'm thankful this Green Bay Packers season is almost over and we can all get on with fixing things for next year.
Published Nov. 24, 2013
There are a lot of different things you can expect when you go to the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, but you would never expect this. A ballet. Right on the stage of the Quadracci Powerhouse. And with "Noises Off," a farce written by Michael Frayn and directed by KJ Sanchez, the Rep has staged a show that has everything that a great ballet has, except the music.
Published Nov. 24, 2013
A frequent pitfall for playwrights that write comedies is a temptation to wind things up at the end with some meaningful reform for the comics that turns them into serious human beings. Most often those attempts end up being sappy and sending an audience home with decidedly mixed feelings wondering whether they were supposed to be laughing all that time. Nothing like that plagues "Things Being What They Are."
Published Nov. 23, 2013
Go ahead and pick any adjective you want. Not one of them - or all of them - can possibly do justice to the glorious production of "Les Misérables" that opened Friday night at the Skylight Music Theatre. But blessed may come close for those lucky enough to see it. After it was over, I felt blessed.