This past weekend was a delight. Donna Washington joined us here in Richmond for the first of the 2020 Hearts Afire Storytelling Series.
In her workshop Saturday morning I sharpened my skills and then was mesmerized by her stories that evening. I learned about the Boo Hag and now I know why my wife painted our front door Haint Blue and we kept her out to midnight afterwards eating Mello Mushroom gluten free pizza and listening to her tell more stories.
Life-long learner that I am, I’ve been participating in a memoir writing class. Considering my mother’s declining memory, I decided I needed to start putting mine down in writing. This week’s story is from that class.
As I’ve been looking back I’ve discovered I remember incidents where I was physically hurt, but I don’t remember the pain. However, all I need do is touch on a scenario where I was emotionally hurt and I relive the pain again.
A writing teacher I know says people stuck in those experiences are suffering mental illness, but artists visit those psychic nether regions for material and then return to the surface to share their insights.
Remember when you’d make an ugly face and your mom would say, “Be careful you don’t get stuck like that.” Occasionally, I think about how dangerous this practice of revisiting the pain is. But, good news, I made it back today, so enjoy this tale of probably the only theatre production of The Straits of Sweetwater.
Remember: You Matter. Your Stories Matter. Tell Them Well!
The Storytellers Channel
In the spring of 1975, while dancing in the chorus of Hello, Dolly!, I ripped both my Achilles tendons. They weren’t severed, but it was seven months before I could dance again. As you can imagine, this put a crimp in my career as a musical theatre song and dance man. I wasn’t completely immobilized; I could walk and even stand for extended periods. I found a job as a waiter in a seafood restaurant where the tips were good, but good tips weren’t enough.
I was consumed with getting my theatre career back on track. I decided to produce and direct a musical, The Fantasticks. The show was well received. In fact, I look back on it as some of the best work of my career. However, my staff made some accounting mistakes and just because we’d made money didn’t mean there was any of it left over afterwards.
Undeterred, my team and I converted an abandoned Foosball parlor in the Lynnhaven Mini Mall, a little strip mall in Virginia Beach, into a theatre. We began producing children’s theatre. We quickly found an audience with the military families stationed at nearby Oceana Naval Air Station.
Our third production was The Straits of Sweetwater. It was a parody of The Perils of Paulinesilent films. Suzie Sweetwater was the damsel in distress. Chauncey Cheerio was the 6-foot+ hero who rode to the rescue on a tricycle with his knees up around his ears. The children loved this. We had additional comic relief from Phil O’Dendron, a talking house plant with an Irish accent, who traveled around the stage, trailing cloth tendrils, looking for The Ol’ Sod he could call home and take root. And then there was my character, Maurice Meanbottom. Dressed all in black with a cape, slouch hat and waxed mustache perfect for twirling.
The climax of the show found Chauncey comforting Suzie as Maurice runs on stage, leaps unto the upstage platform, unrolls the mortgage, a scroll that rolled to the beleaguered couple’s feet.
“Marry me or I foreclose.”
Well, that was the way the scene usually unfolded. On this particular day, I leaped onto the upstage platform and my foot slipped off the edge. My foot slid underneath the platform and I fell backward. I landed spread-eagle on Chauncey’s tricycle stage left. The momentum drug my leg out from under the platform and I performed a perfect somersault landing on my feet far stage left. My cape had come down over my head obscuring my face.
The audience interpreted this as a particularly brilliant piece of stage craft. The children were highly amused. Milking this for all it was worth, I vigorously poked at the cape as though I was trying to fight my way free. In reality I was struggling to figure out what had happened and trying not to scream in agony. Eventually, I fought my way free of the cape and unrolled my scrolled mortgage. Chauncey paid the debt, and Suzie and he rode off on the tricycle. Which, by the way, if you were concerned, was none the worse for wear after my impromptu acrobatics.
We took our curtain call, I did the curtain speech and stood at the door thanking the audience for coming and encouraging them to return with their friends as they left.
After everyone was gone, the cast and crew and I found ourselves sitting there looking at each other wondering, “What the hell happened?”
I sat on the edge of the stage, pulled my slacks’ leg up, rolled my sock down and there was my shin bone. The pressure of the platform had crushed the skin. There was no bleeding, just bare bone.
Like my leg wound nine years before there was nothing to sew up. We just cleansed it, put salve on it and bandaged it. To this day when the weather is dry and cold that skin occasionally cracks, but fortunately, to this day it still doesn’t bleed.
I have no memory of the pain. I do have a clear memory of standing on the stage with the cape over my head, swiping at the cape, marking time so I could recover and the show would go on.
Here’s to getting up, brushing yourself off and getting on with getting on.
For as my daddy said, “You’re only a loser, if you quit when you’re down.
This might not be a bad last minute gift. Hint Hint
I Want to Hear from You
I loved playing Maurice Meanbottom.
Have you any stories of getting up and getting on with life?
I’d love to hear them.
Til next time,