Talking the Talk
In her one-woman show, Angela Kariotis tells her own story in her own way
"What's harder than gettin' out of the ghetto?" Angela Kariotis asks, slumped back as if on an imaginary stoop. Suddenly, as if startled into self-awareness, she brings her knees together, sits up properly. She enunciates: "Getting the ghetto out of you."
Kariotis is rehearsing Reminiscence of the Ghetto & Other Things That raiZed Me, her phenomenal one-woman show about growing up poor in New Jersey, directed by Paul Bonin-Rodriguez and premiering at the UT Department of Theatre and Dance's David Mark Cohen New Works Festival this Saturday. Her T-shirt reads: "New Jersey -- Only the Strong Survive." The 24-year-old Kariotis has performed segments of the 90-minute show at FronteraFest, where she proved to be a pistol-whip of a performer. She is a slam poet, using herself and her voice as her best prop. No, wait, she is an entertainer -- a dancer, a rapper, a mimic, a mime. No, wait, she is a comedian -- like Margaret Cho, say, or John Leguizamo, one of her heroes -- mixing social commentary with hilarious stories of home. No, wait, she is none of those things, or all of them a-jumble, something all her own.
"You have your own stories; I know that." In person, Kariotis has the same dynamism she shows in performances. She uses her hands a lot, hitting the table, slapping the air. She leans forward, leans back. Right now, she is pointing around the coffee shop. "And this guy and that girl, they have their own stories, too. And maybe we all don't have the same experience, but you can't underestimate people." When Kariotis performs a segment about the year they had no Christmas tree, people can relate. When Kariotis talks about being an outsider -- white in a black world, black in a white world, a girl and a Greek and an artist to boot -- people can relate. "In the show, I talk about hand-me-down clothes. There's a lot of muthafuckas wear hand-me-down clothes. It ain't a bitch to admit." Her face breaks into a grin. She ends, as she often does, with a question: "You know what I mean?"
Kariotis is charming -- the big talk and the gesticulating and the wild hair barely contained by a scarf -- but she is not entirely comfortable (or content) to be an East Coast novelty. "I learned here that I talk differently. I had never encountered that at home." Kariotis' accent, her lingo, and the way she dresses raised eyebrows at UT, where she is finishing her M.A. in communication studies. Kariotis grew up in Irvington, N.J., where she hung with the homeboys and the homegirls and the humble Greek family she introduces us to in Reminiscence, a show that also introduces us to Kariotis' own fierce personal philosophies. What is cool? What does the way you speak say about you? Who can and can't say the word nigger? ("Damn," she says in the play, "what more do white people want? We gotta have the word nigger for ourselves, too?") Kariotis' writing is heavy on wordplay -- "I met this guy who plays songs on his RealPlayer. He's a real player." -- but that's not just empty punning. It's a celebration of her own vernacular, and a defense of it, too.
"It's about representing where I'm from -- knowing where I am," she says. "You don't have to give up how you talk, you just gotta know what you're saying." A grin breaks across her face. "Right?"
Reminiscence of the Ghetto & Other Things That raiZed Me will be performed Saturday, April 12, 7pm, at the Oscar Brockett Theatre in the Winship Drama Building on the UT campus.