Imagine this: A scene from a television show ... let's call it The Kitchen Table. A group of women reside in a house of madness. The older sister, overloaded with drugs, is flying or crashing and takes it out on the décor; chairs and tables and walls and fragile things are upturned or caved in or shattered. The younger sister, newly released from the hospital, is hunched over the spot where her appendix used to be. There is a grandmother screaming and carrying on like grandmothers scream and carry on when life is unsettling. A little brother runs around and around and around, a small planet spinning himself dizzy inside an imploding universe. Offscreen, we hear a burst of sound — solid with jagged edges. As it builds in intensity, the camera arcs to the mother, who — mouth wide open — is falling apart with laughter; mouth wide open, is honoring that in this moment, her world is falling apart.
Except this is not TV. It is a reality based on the life of Oletha "Olie" Cuevas, a Charlotte comedian who remembers this experience as a learning moment. "My mother ... I was looking at her like, 'What's wrong with you, are you crazy?' And she just would not, I mean, she laughed until she cried. And that was one of those moments in my life where I was like, 'Wow, no matter what's happening, you can always find some humor in it.'"
These days, Cuevas, a 35-year-old single mother, finds humor in relatives ("My whole family's crazy. We done been through some things, but I'm a survivor. Of abortion."), in relationships ("I'm tired of the 'hood' love. All that fuckin' and fightin' — sometimes at the same time. You know, getting choked while having an orgasm just takes shit to a whole 'nother level.") and her children. ("I tried to get an abortion, but apparently there's some kinda time limit. The doctor said, 'Ma'am, you can't have an abortion, your son is 10 years old!'").
"They know I'm crazy," she says of her sons, ages 12 and 14. "I may curse and talk about 'em onstage, but I do the same thing in the house."
Born in New York, Cuevas graduated in 2000 from the City University of New York, with a bachelor's in economics and business administration. A bank job on Wall Street soon taught her that her dream of being one of those women who "wore nice suits and tennis shoes [on the way to] work and put their heels on when they got to work" wasn't all that she thought it would be. "I was miserable," she says. "Everything was horrible: the florescent lighting, the bad coffee, the fake friends."
In 2003, Cuevas experienced one of the lowest points in her life, when her sons' father refused to support them. "I remember being in my car and just crying and punching the steering wheel," she says. "I couldn't believe that he would turn his back on his boys like that. ... I got a second job, and then I discovered comedy as an outlet and stress reliever."
Soon after a move to Florida — where Cuevas worked in real estate — the Orlando Improv helped her get her act together. "We'd get to do our open mikes and guest sets in there on the weekends in front of major headliners," she says. "So I had several days and several sets when I just killed it."
If Cuevas was an ugly woman, maybe she'd have an easier time "killing it" in Charlotte, too. But where women are involved — "and women are mostly the consumers of comedy" — she says she feels her looks work against her. "There is definitely a resistance and a wall that women come out to the comedy clubs with, especially when it comes to other women comics," she says. "When I go onstage, when I put my face on and do my hair, I look nice! And some women can be intimidated by that. ... At times I feel like women are looking for a reason not to like me and not to laugh, versus looking for a reason to get me and understand me. I'm onstage, and I see them there with their arms folded and I'm like: 'Ah, bitch, you know you wanna laugh! Why did you come out?!'"
Still, Cuevas — who works as a food and beverage supervisor at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and a bartender — loves Charlotte and finds the opportunities numerous. She's particularly looking forward to her public access show, Olie Uncensored returning to the air, and on Feb. 17, she will participate once again in the 12x12 Comedy Challenge at the Fort Mill Comedy Zone. At the event, 12 comics are tasked with developing five minutes of new material every month, which will be presented the third Thursday of every month. "I'm crazy looking forward to that," she says. "Five minutes every month — that's 60 minutes of material. If even a quarter of that is good, that's a lot of material at the end of the year."
As for her long-term plans, Cuevas says she'd like to perfect her feature act within the next three years; in five she wants to be a headliner. And sometime in the future, she'd like to share the screen with her favorite comedian, Whoopi Goldberg, who first taught her 9-year-old self that being funny could also be a job. "Her one-woman show — when she had the rag on her head and she was playing the valley girl — I mean, I watched that over and over.
"I identified with the fact that, one, she was a woman ... [who] had identity issues, which I think we all, ethnic women, deal with at times. And it was just funny, but also, it was a little bit sad."
"The thing about life is that you can't escape it. You gotta wake up every morning and show up. Even if you're mad tired and you don't like the world, you gotta show up."