A PROUD MOMENT
A few years ago I was asked to launch a theatrical program in Baltimore City’s middle and high schools. In one high school, I was not welcomed with open arms. In fact, the authorities seemed to resent my involvement. They reluctantly agreed to take part in the program and told their teachers to send a couple of students from each of their classes to participate. I later learned some of the teachers took advantage of the opportunity and sent me the most difficult and most disruptive kids they had. It made for a challenging group.
At the first rehearsal, twenty sullen and unmotivated teenagers slumped into their seats, arms folded. They were glad to be there—anything to get out of the classroom—but firmly opposed to participating in a program that might open them up to peer ridicule and derision.
I asked them what kind of music and dance they would like. Their answers were predictable: Rap and Hip Hop. I told them I was not trained in either, but we would include them in our program along with other music they might enjoy. I promised I would find someone to teach Hip Hop, and they could write and perform their own raps. I kept my promise and found a professional Hip Hop teacher willing to volunteer her time. She came once. The kids were so nasty and uncooperative she never came back.
We plugged on. I found the kids’ exposure to music was limited to Rap and TV commercials. Slowly, I introduced other genres: classical, rock, Broadway… In spite of themselves, toes started tapping. They particularly liked the Beach Boys beat. For a long time I didn’t tell them the group was composed of a bunch of white boys. They also liked the Bee Gees and their disco version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I didn’t tell them Beethoven was popular in the 19th century. They really went for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I didn’t give them any details about George Gershwin, either.
Gradually, a show came together: an eclectic mix that proved to be as wonderful as it was strange. We began to bond a bit, to trust each other. At the time I was directing another show in a community north of Baltimore. Bad traffic made me late for rehearsal. When I finally reached the school the place was empty, except for one of my kids sitting alone on the steps. She ran to my car and stuck her head in the window.
“They told me not to bother to wait,” she said. “But I knew you’d come.”
The kids did their show for the school. It was a difficult performance. I had never had a group so full of stage fright. But the kids did a beautiful job and their peers showed appreciation for their talent and courage with a standing ovation.
We decided to take the show on the road.
It wasn’t hard to find gigs; everyone loves a free show. The kids performed for elementary schools, community centers, retirement homes, and churches. Our last performance was at a hospital that specializes in children with birth and traumatic neurological disorders. I made reservations at a local pizza place for a celebratory cast party following the show.
We arrived at the hospital and went to the room reserved for the performance. The kids stopped at the door and looked in. It was not a pleasant sight. The patients in this hospital are some of the most physically challenged children in the medical world. Their birth defects and traumatic injuries cause jerky, palsied movements. Their attempts at speech often result in moans, high-pitched squeals, and stutters. Most were in wheelchairs; some were in cribs with guardrails pulled high.
My kids turned and fled.
I found them in the parking lot, huddled around the bus.
“No way we’re going in there,” one of them said.
“They’re a bunch of freaks,” another added.
I was furious and made no attempt to hide it. “Those children are waiting for a show and you’re going to disappoint them?”
They wouldn’t look at me.
“You’re afraid of them,” I said.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” one of the boys said.
“If you don’t go in there and give them the show you promised, you are cowards,” I told them. Actually, my words weren’t that polite.
Finally, they agreed. “We go in, do the show, and get out.”
So, we set up and did the show. During the performance there were several places where the actors went into the house to interact with the audience. Several of those moments passed before one of the braver performers approached one of the children. The child smiled when he came close. Others followed, and soon all of the actors were in and out of the audience, touching the children, playing with them, and making them laugh.
After the kids took their final bow, I started on the laborious task of loading out our equipment: flats, set pieces, props, sound system… After a few minutes I realized I was alone on stage—unusual because the actors always helped with the task.
I looked out at our audience. There were my kids, playing with these sick children, teasing them into smiles, returning their smiles with big grins.
I finished the load out alone. When I had everything packed up, I called for my kids. “Time to go, guys. Our reservation at the pizza parlor is for 4:30.”
One of the girls stopped hopping a frog up a giggling boy’s shoulder long enough to say, “Can’t we stay? We can have pizza anytime.”
I’ve had many proud moments in my career. This one is in my top ten.