Before you read this story any further, we strongly suggest you visit YouTube, the Spoleto website, or even the City Paper website and watch a video of Edgar Oliver. Because if you do not do as we say, then there is no way your brain can truly understand the sound of Oliver’s voice. According to the New York Times, he speaks “with the tone and accent of Bela Legosi.” And his oratory is not straight-forward; he draws out his words, lingering musically on certain consonants.
Now use that context, and imagine how he would recount the following story of the road trips he took as a child from his home in Savannah to Charleston. Although it’s been nearly two decades since Oliver has been to the Lowcountry, his vivid tales of rooming at a Meeting Street home with his mother and sister Helen provide a small preview of what audience members can expect from his one-man Spoleto show East 10th Street: Self Portrait with Empty House.
“It was just this house where this old man in a wheelchair lived with these two old ladies. And it was hard to tell what their relationship was with one another, but they all lived there, and since he was confined to the wheelchair, they never any of them went upstairs,” he says. “So they decided to open it as a rooming house, but nobody ever stayed there it seems to me except us. We’d go there and they’d say, ‘Just go upstairs and choose a room.’ ”
Oliver has addressed his Southern upbringing in past shows, but East 10th Street is exclusively about the East Village rooming house he moved into when he arrived in New York City 33 years ago.
“The show is about my life and Helen’s life together here in this house and all the amazing, strange, and loony people that lived here with us, and then I eventually wind up alone here, which is how I am now. I’m the last one living here,” he says.
As Oliver tells it, his home was built in the 1840s. It was used as a boarding house and hasn’t changed very much since. In the early years of his occupancy, the corner of 10th Street and 3rd Avenue was “transvestite hooker central,” but he could see all the way to the building that used to house Cooper Union, where Abraham Lincoln gave the speech that guaranteed his presidency.
During the show, Oliver will lovingly embody the various cranks he met while living in the house, from his super to “the retired mulatto postman who lived downstairs.” He says, “And then some of the people on the top floor were sort of — well, I don’t know, tried to kill us. But I had a sort of fondness for them anyway.”
He explains that he doesn’t channel these characters as much as he tells their stories, bringing them to life in something of a dance. “I find that it definitely changes with each new space in which I perform it,” he says. He’s looking forward to his shows at the Emmett Robinson Theatre. “I’m sure that it will influence the movement aspect of it, which is a very important part of it for me. I’m sure it will change.”
The last tenant in Oliver’s East 10th Street building left 13 years ago, and the East Village is no longer the wacky place that he recounts in his show. “I’d say that it’s gotten a lot more conservative, like it seems to me the world is getting,” he says. “But I’m always just curious to meet new people, so for all of its conservativeness, there are always new, interesting people appearing, and I look forward to meeting them.”
And as the title promises, he hopes it will become a portrait of his current form of solitude. “When I did wind up here alone, it could feel a bit like a kind of haunted feeling at times, but I actually have grown sort of used to being here alone … It’s kind of a luxurious sensation.”
Although East 10th Street is very New York-centric, Oliver doesn’t think a Charleston audience will have trouble relating to his performance. “I found for one thing with the South is that the South is truly a deeply eccentric place,” he says. “I know Savannah at least to me is a truly wild place full of strange and loony and amazing people, and I’m sure that Charleston is too. In general, the world is just like that for all that it may pretend not to be.”
A main theme of the show is wandering, and he wants the audience to get a sense of that feeling as they watch the show. Just as Oliver wandered around the Battery as a child, he has wandered through the desolate stretches of New York, over the bridges and into Brooklyn. When he returns to Charleston, he’ll continue to ramble. “That’s what I love to do is walk, to walk through that beautiful city once more and meet strange and eccentric people there.”
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