Kathy Y. Wilson’s e-signature tagline reads: “roughly hewn since 1965”.
It is a smart, catchy and concise line. But if you were one of those people lucky enough to read the “Your Negro Tour Guide” reviews Wilson wrote for CityBeat, Cincinnati Magazine, and NPR decades ago, you’d also recognize that line as a caveat.
Wilson is lightweight in construction. And, at 56, she’s not as fast as she used to be. But you wouldn’t want to mess with her. Certainly not in a war of words. She’s too sharp. Too learned. Too informed.
She insists she’s mellowed a bit in the years since the publication of those columns and the book that followed. (“Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White” appeared in 2004.)
“I’m less judgmental,” she said, “but I’m 50 times more honest.”
We will know soon.
About fifteen years ago, actor Torie Wiggins and director Jeff Griffin rounded up a generous handful of Wilson’s most pointed commentary and adapted it into a solo piece, starring Wiggins.
The show was performed in New York and Texas and just about anywhere they could convince someone to perform. It was even part of the 2008 Cincinnati Fringe Festival.
Now, a revised version of that original piece is back on stage in Cincinnati. It runs from April 13 to May 7 as part of a double bill at the Ensemble Theater Cincinnati, sharing the evening with “I Shall Not Be Moved”, by Isaiah Reaves. Wiggins runs this show. In February, Enquirer reporter Keith Biery Golick introduced Reaves’ play and its subject, the playwright’s grandmother, who traveled across the American South in the 1960s as one of the Freedom Riders.
As for Wilson’s piece, you’d be forgiven if you thought she wrote exclusively about race. The title certainly suggests it. While race and race relations were certainly important topics, the world was filled with targets for Wilson’s opinions.
Indeed, they could have renamed her column “Kathy Y. Wilson Against the World”. But that would be too heavy. Wilson is not against the world. She just wants to live in an upgraded version of it. She wants a better world. A fairer one. And one that is much, much nicer.
Wiggins remembers encountering Wilson’s columns almost as soon as she moved from Atlanta in 1998 to study acting at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
“His voice was so prominent and so distinct,” Wiggins said. “That’s one of the things that made me want to dramatize the columns in the first place.”
Unlike most of her professional theater colleagues, Wiggins has found ways to stay busy during the pandemic.
“I was very lucky,” she said. She acted in films. And recorded an audiobook. But mostly, she kept busy with the voiceover work. So much, in fact, that she could afford to build a small recording studio in her home.
She recorded more than two dozen spots for a presidential campaign. One for New York Mayor Eric Adams during his campaign. There was also recording work for the Kentucky Derby. And a Super Bowl commercial for Michelob Ultra.
But getting on stage with a show like Wilson’s is what she dreamed of. Her only regret is that the piece seems just as relevant as when she first read Wilson’s Chronicles over 20 years ago.
“It’s disheartening that a lot of that stuff from over 10 years ago still resonates so powerfully,” Wiggins said. “In the original, for example, there was a letter to Timothy Thomas’ mother.” (Thomas was the 19-year-old unarmed black man whose fatal shooting by a Cincinnati police officer in April 2001 sparked five days of civil unrest in Over-the-Rhine.)
“Now there’s this really sad and depressing club of mothers who have lost their sons and daughters to police brutality,” Wiggins said, launching into a list of names; Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others. “There are countless people on that list.”
Wilson insists that, for all its deadly serious content, his piece is not without humor.
“At the end of the day, I’m going for the laughs,” Wilson said. “I want my message. But I want him to be enveloped in laughter. You have to give people a break. … There are things that sometimes make everyone uncomfortable. But there are even more things to make them laugh.
“Your Negro Tour Guide” and “I Won’t Be Moved”
When: April 13-May 7.
Or: Ensemble Theater Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine.
Tickets: $52 and up.
Information: 513-421-3555; togethercincinnati.org.