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.