ALTON — Emmy-winning actress Viola Davis said the only thing separating women of color from everyone else was opportunity … and an Alton native is definitely creating her own.
Olivia Neal, 36, just finished a role in a three-week run of “Tell Me Something Good” at the St. Louis Black Repertory Theater, adding to her list of accomplishments.
“It pushed every aspect of what I’ve learned,” Neal says about the musical, a nostalgic walk down memory lane.
Neal says worry about the younger crowd being entertained was in vain. They sang along, clapped and danced just like everyone else.
“Every night, people had a good time,” she says.
Neal is no stranger to the stage. Born and raised in Alton, she has been performing since the age of 6. Although “Tell Me Something Good” has ended and Neal is taking a break from the stage, her life is still centered around music.
After graduating from Alton High School in 1997, her love for the theater blossomed in college.
“I had already decided that I would be a dance major,” she said, only taking theater because she assumed it would be an easy elective toward her degree. But she was so challenged in class, it changed her course.
“It opened the world (of theater) up,” Neal says. “I had an untapped talent I didn’t even know about.”
There are several stage plays and musicals under her belt since 1998, including “Seussical the Musical” at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where she played the Sour Kangaroo.
Singing remains her first love, however. She sings with her father’s band, The Howard Neal Band, as well as the Downtime Band and the Bryan Foggs Band, and also is the vice president of Shoestring Records, the family business, opened in 1978.
“We open it up to artists to express themselves,” she says.
Each summer for the last four years, Neal has been the music director over a program in St. Thomas Virgin Islands. It is a six-week, full production for ages 7 through 18. This upcoming summer will be Neal’s fifth year over the program.
“It’s a lot of work, but I do have downtime to look at the beach,” she says.
The young actress also is very aware of perception. She says she was used to seeing the stereotypical roles of maids and nannies when she first began to do theater and believes those roles, although sparse, are still around. She remembers a time when “Raisin in the Sun,” a popular play, was produced at SIUE and some of her white peers were angered by the predominately black cast and wanted to petition to get the production of the show stopped.
“We really had to fight to get it,” she says.
Today, she says she is pleased with the increased role African-American playwrights, actors and screenwriters are having in the business, breaking the glass ceiling and going after their dreams.
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