After a month of mummy flicks, I thought my fez-and-bandage Egyptian was getting pretty good.
“Ya prem a-sharif yaru-ha ab-variyah makhutasa a dó an takh valahyi ivanté dah-yi alla contallay…”
I laboriously translated that to mean; “My rags need changing and I’m getting’ a little gamy.” It doesn’t.
I finally realized that once again, I had been played for a sucker by a fantasy language from books, films, music, and movies. It has happened repeatedly since I became a media-sponge about the age of eight.
Tarzan brought me to full alert with his ape-language cry of “Kreegah! Bundolo!!” (Beware! Kill!!).
Michael Rennie opened the heavens for me; “Klaatu narada dikto” (intergalactic for “Can you hail me a cab?”
Then there were the unending elvish chants of Tolkien extolling the amorous escapades of Beren and Tinuviél (who aren’t even in the story).
The gleeful jazz exhortations of Cab Calloway; “Heigh-dee heigh-dee heigh-dee ho!” Which I translate as “Waiter! A round of jalapeno poppers for everyone, please.”
And of course the rock-n-roll voodoo Witch Doctor’s advice; “Ooh-eeh ooh-ah-ah, ting tang walla-walla bing bang.” Which means; “Dinner and a movie is your best chance, Bubba.”
Janie takes classes in Spanish at the library. I watch movies and read sub-titles on movies and operas. Her chosen path is the sensible and useful one. Mine?
“Vos tokh vi yah-ta mahallah ah varitah yi-ah.”
That’s Egyptian for “Go forth and prosper……and thanks for the fish.”
We have a houseful every Halloween thanks to Janie.
Janie lives for Halloween. She likes me pretty well, and she adores Chloe, her pup, but she lives for Halloween.
The house is filthy with skeletons; human, rats, cats, and avian. Most of the bones twinkle, glow, and/or make noise. Any drawer, door, or toilet seat screams or plays Wagner (sometimes it’s hard to distinguish). The shower is defended by knife-wielding shadows. Books on shelves shuffle…by themselves. Doormats screech – witch’s hats flutter (be careful, they’ll putcher eye out).
It’s a feast of shrimp and sausage and potatoes and onions and eye of toad and hair of newt (whatever a newt is)…and a cornbread to die for (and you may – but hey, it’s Halloween)…and yes, a gluten-free-but-what’s-use-in-living version of cornbread which everyone tells me is wonderful and I will take their word…from a distance.
And then there’s the passing of Janie’s Treat Cat Box. You must reach into the razor-toothed mouth of the cat to get your treat – an unforgivable cruelty to inflict upon a guest assembly that has lived through Jaws and Banksy’s “Girl With a Balloon”. But it’s a foolish and brave group who’ve swilled more than a bit ‘o bourbon, and chardonnay, and prosecco, and cabernet; all of which are notorious courage-boosters.
And so the giant punch-balloons, and eyeball-rings, and head-syringes, and bloody saws, are deployed and depleted and, since thankfully no one requires a ride to the Emergency Room, we retire to the living room, de-activate the noise-makers and the stories begin.
Let me be frank about it. It’s not a group of spring chickens.
They’ve done a lot, been through a lot, seen a lot, and thought a lot about what they’ve done, seen, and been through. They’re verbal. They have vocabulary. They’ve had wine. The stories are unhurried and ever-changing, eminently interruptible for on-the-spot “improvement”. It’s a great time to live.
Chloe, the pup is in heaven. She thinks everyone came to see her and every story is about her wonderfulness. She drifts from lap to lap. It’s a great time to live.
I could relate some of the tales…and get sued…or arrested. Rather, I am struck by how much theatre has been collected this evening within these walls. These non-theatre walls.
When and how often I have been enveloped by a concentration of theatre experience in a non-theatre space. How desperately magical some of those congregations have been. Then it occurs to me I’ve actually lived in such a place.
I had a college-ghetto room in a house on Linden Walk about 1971. It was an old house divided into rooms for rent – six or seven rooms that couldn’t even spell AC, sharing two bathrooms (tub-no shower, hook-and-eye on the door for imagined privacy – hey, it was hippie days, let the fantasies fly).
I recall my rent being about $1.25 per day. For real.
It was a little over a block away from the Fine Arts Building on the UK campus, around which, in defiance of Copernicus, the universe revolved. Thus, it was unsurprising that, with one exception, every tenant of the house was connected to the Guignol Theatre. As far as I was concerned, this was Ground Zero for the future of American theatre…whatever Ground Zero meant in 1971.
Besides me, there were two fellow actors living together downstairs. One was gay and later became a monk (for real), one was Pan incarnate (at least to hear him tell it – O the glorious filter of memory!). It was a reality show in the making before we’d ever even heard of reality shows. The assistant costumer for the Theatre Department lived down the hall. Two actresses lived across the hall – their credits; Viola in Twelfth Night, Antigone in Anouilh’s Antigone, Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals. It was a theatre-infested house.
Except for one room.
She was demure. Lower-case letters can’t really serve adequately here.
Work with me… …she was demure………
She might’ve been attractive. Who could tell?
She would emerge from her room on Monday mornings, head down behind her books, and proceed with mission out of the house until late in the day. There was no “How d’ya do”.
Until Saturday night…
On Saturday nights someone would visit her in her room. I never saw him, or her, or… But I, along with the rest of the house heard…
It began as a plaintive sigh…
…and proceeded quickly to a; “whoop…whoop…Whoop…Whoop…WHOOP…WHOOP!…WHOOOP!!…WHOOOOPP!!!…WWWHHHOOOOOPPPP!!!!!”
It was stunning. It was athletic. It was humbling.
It was far more dramatic than anyone else in the house could produce.
I still don’t know who she was, but when I was 20, she was a God to me. She still is.
I visited my mom today. She’s 90 years old… …having trouble walking… …hearing might be even more problematical. But the equipment upstairs is still pretty good. So… …I just listened.
Mom’s neighborhood in Louisville has deteriorated in the years she’s lived there. As the passing of older neighbors has occurred, suspected drug transactions, police cars, exotically costumed ladies, Byzantine and multitudinous tattoos, have all appeared recently.
I’m not happy about it.
If you scramble the words in that last sentence, it spells; “I’m fairly terrified.”
But Mom is fierce and wants to live by herself in her house. After a life of hard work and devotion to her family, she sees that as her reward. Who am I and my sisters to say otherwise? All we can do is fret and hover.
Mom has a new neighbor. I met him last month.
Hassan and his family are from Somalia. They’re Muslim. Except for Hassan, their English is non-existent. Hassan is proud of and misses Somalia, but is very happy to be in America. He and I chatted as his little boy played with a football in the front yard. When I introduced myself, his first words were; “It’s hard here. People don’t go to each other’s houses and share food. They stay alone.”
I explained my concerns about Mom and the neighborhood and introduced him to Mom. I wasn’t sure how my Southern Baptist mom would react to her Muslim neighbor. The introduction was bewildering and brief due to poor hearing, a foreign accent, and a shrill interruption from Hassan’s hijab-wearing wife from the porch next door. Still, it was a start.
I followed up with an email to Hassan.
Since that initial contact, Hassan has called on my mom twice. Once to offer to pick up food for her since he was on his way to the grocery (American grocery stores – my friend Eric Johnson thinks they are a miracle unto themselves – I think he’s spot on), and once to bring a book for my mom to give to me. It was a modern translation of the QURAN.
Today, Mom gave me the book, commenting that she had read a bit of it and noticed a lot of names and stories she recognized.
May I repeat that?
Today, Mom gave me the book, commenting that she had read a bit of it and noticed a lot of names and stories she recognized.
She’s feelin’ pretty good about her neighbor.
This is the same woman with whom I could never discuss Mr. Trump’s outrages.
Grabbing ladies’ private parts, mocking the afflicted, pornography, colluding with Russia against America…the mere whisper of those topics when we were growing up would banish you, not from her family – never that, but from her approval and acceptance of you as a person worth knowing. Good lord…there’s an abyss to avoid.
Hassan and my Mom… …an America Mr. Trump never knew… …and his supporters and followers have forgotten.
Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
We keep doing it.
If Mr. Wilde were asked, he’d probably point out the obvious; “It’s brilliant!”
He’d be correct…insufferable…but correct.
The brilliance of this script shone through in Athens West’s recent production. The young Jack and Algernon (Samuel Lockridge and Mark Mozingo) were energetically possessed of too much vocabulary and way too much privilege for their own good, but just enough for our delight. The maddeningly charming young ladies, Cecily (Amelia Collins) and Gwendolen (Raylee Magill) dominated the second act, giving us a preview of how the married life of this foursome would evolve.
It was a good evening.
I wrote about a 1980’s Guignol Theater production of “Earnest” in which I participated. I could be insufferable and say it was brilliant (which of course it was) but, being in it, I cannot attest to the accuracy of my evaluation.
There was another Guignol production of “Earnest” in 2001. It featured an impossibly young Ellie Clark as Lady Bracknell and was set in the 1950’s. I expect Ms. Clark will essay the iconic Bracknell role again (perhaps again and again) in her career. I hope so.
This 2001 production also served as a reunion of former Guignolites. We gathered to rededicate a newly refurbished Guignol and to celebrate another generation of Mr. Wilde’s “brilliant” play.
It seems like we have to do that every 20 years or so.
Janie and I had a lovely night at the theatre a while back. We watched a crisp and energetic cast perform Oscar Wilde’s brilliant “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Athens West Theatre. It was one our happiest nights for the year.
I admired the efforts of Shayne Brakefield as a sometimes befuddled, often pompous local reverend (think Robert Morley in African Queen with a pencil-thin mustache), Janet Scott in full sail as Lady Bracknell, and Paul Thomas as the butler(s); mysterious, disheveled, inscrutable, vaguely obedient, barely competent, and clearly the mind behind every scene……not.
I have worked with all these actors before.
I know their gifts…and cherish them.
I know their habits and peccadilloes…and cherish them as well.
A week later I participated in a reading of Robert Penn Warren’s ALL THE KING’S MEN on the Carrick Theater stage at Transylvania with Joe Gatton, Sherman Fracher, Ellie Clark, Tom Phillips, Mark Mozingo, and Geoffrey Cobb Nelson.
I have worked with Joe, Sherman, Ellie, and Tom before.
Joe, Sherman, Ellie, Tom, Shayne, Janet, and Paul…
Together we’ve been to Dracula’s Transylvania, New Jersey, New York, a Midwest Mega-Church, Agincourt, Aquitaine, Deep South Mississippi, the magical forests of Shakespeare, Deep South Alabama, Upper-Peninsula Michigan, Russia, London, Pennsyvania, Scotland. We’ve been husbands and wives and daughters and sons and kings and vassals and brothers and sisters to each other.
We have history.
We have vocabulary.
When we step on stage with each other we have a big head-start to share with an audience; a dialogue that, in some cases, has been going on for decades.
These two stage experiences prompted me into a memory (what doesn’t these days?) of an early 80’s Guignol production of “The Importance of Being Earnest”. This was, in retrospect, a wonderful cast for me; Eric Johnson, Martha Campbell, Walter Tunis, Lisa Thomas, Georgia Ferrell, Tim McClure, Ann Dalzell, and Paul Thomas (once more playing the butler – murderous, scheming, ever-expanding his role).
This production was directed by Dr. James Rodgers, and he created an atmosphere playful, quick, and creative, but fierce in language…a happy culture in which Wilde’s mots, bon et rapide, could fly.
And fly they did. At the first table read, our Lady Bracknell encountered the word “indecorous” in the script. She paused and inquired; “Is that pronounced; ‘IN-DUH-COH-RUS’?” To which another cast member replied; “No, and if you say it that way, that’s where you’ll be.”
The current US President striving to turn Twitter to Gibber in the White House…
An Attorney General re-opening long-decided investigations in people the current US President dislikes, and dismissing the trial-decided prison sentences of people the current US President likes.
Children in cages by order of the current US President…
People like the neighbors I grew up with, in various arenas screaming “Lock her up!” as the current US President looks on encouragingly…
Almost 100,000 have died in the US from Covid-19, an infection the current US President called a hoax. His response? He suggests medicines considered dangerous by scientists and doctors, and plays golf for two days, having worked hard and well.
The tsunami of nightly lies and gibber from the current US President…
The current US President…
A congress that supports the current US President…
My current US Senator that has voted with the current US President 97% of the time.
My current US Senator who recently got a lifetime appointment for a lawyer considered “unqualified” (by the American Bar Association) as a Federal Judge. His qualification? He’s Republican and young enough to be around for a while.
These make for a raw day.
Or…a good day to talk to the dog.
I’ve written about Chloe the Wonder Pup before (see “The Homeward Three-Step”). She‘s not a beauty, ‘cept to me. She’s shaggy. You see her and you wanna grab some shears and make a sweater. She usually has debris spackling her face. She is flotsam and jetsam and blind love incarnate. She can howl like a banshee at squirrels…they quake…with laughter.
She’s direct…no gibber here.
“Chlo, my girl, whaddaya think about this mess?”
“Fuggitaboutit! Is Chuck out in his yard?” (Chuck is our neighbor on the corner for whom Chloe has a totally inappropriate passion.)
“No, He’s at work. I’m serious here. The country seems to be tearing itself apart because of this current US President.”
“Is the current US President here? Is Joanna here? (Joanna is our mail carrier for whom Chloe has a totally inappropriate passion.)
“No, he’s not. He’s in Washington. And Joanna won’t be here for another hour or so.”
“Why are you worrying about someone who’s more than five blocks away? How far away is Joanna?”
“Closer, probably. Are you saying I should worry more about the people nearby?”
“Well, duh. You can’t do anything about the far-away guy. You could however, change that Senator. That sounds useful.”
…parents of another language resort to non-verbal sounds of despair over their separated children housed in cages in the land of their dreams.
…of past things loved and lost…times, mates, values (imagined and real)……whole species.
…for teams; “GO BIG BLUE!”…for charismatic leaders; “LOCK HER UP!”…for artificial seasonal landmarks; “HAPPY NEW YEAR!”
…at the happy foolishness of friends…and…at the misfortunes of strangers…dammit.
…words of love…and words of mere seduction.
…”I do”…”I will uphold”… “I will defend”
My planet does all of these sound-producing things and more.
It also sings.
It sings of love and death and life and hate.
It sings of celebration and it sings of despair.
It sings of birth and marriage and graduation and waking up on a sunny morning.
It sings of forests and highways and deserts and oceans.
It sings of God and it sings of the Devil and it sings of the people caught between the two.
It sings of the planets and it sings of the girl next door.
It sings to inspire and it sings to console.
My friend Dr. Everett McCorvey has a sign in his studio. It reads;
“God likes me when I work.
He loves me when I sing.”
I cannot attest to the scientific accuracy of his sign, but of all the gods I’ve read about and studied, this rings 100% true. I believe every breath and every cell in my body is made better when I sing. What god worth his salt wouldn’t cherish that? And if that’s true for li’l ol’ me, how much truer is it for the whole planet? Every breath, every cell made better by singing.
Singing is the best thing my planet does.
I sing every day.
I sing everywhere and for no reason at all.
I sing to the dog and the cat – they are bewildered by it and react to it like most humans confronted by things they don’t understand: they hate it. But since I feed them, open rebellion has been avoided. Lord help me if the kibbles run out.
My wife, Janie, tolerates it with saint-like patience. I am aware that obscure Sondheim lyrics while loading the dishwasher and the noir growlings of Tom Waits while driving the car can be unnerving, but so far, she hasn’t applied for a concealed carry license…that I know of.
Thus, I add to the un-silence of my planet.
I invite you to do the same.
Throw your head back.
Cut it loose.
Robert Penn Warren, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, James Lee Burke, Sharyn McCrumb, William Faulkner, Manly Wade Wellman, Anne Rice, Davis Grubb, — you list ‘em, I probably like ‘em.
What is it?
As usual, I overthink it a lot. But I suspect it’s simple; they’re good writers that lack winter.
Wandering in the sensual and furtive Appalachian hills of McCrumb, Warren, and Grubb. Exploring the night-time potential of New Orleans alleys and courts after a rainstorm with Williams, Burke, and Rice. Scanning the critter-filled wetlands with Hurston and Rawlings. Cataloguing the Behinders, Frogfathers, Shonikens, and Gardinels of the Smokies with Wellman.
None of these reading experiences require snow and that’s just hunky-dory with me. Maybe the best of them all for me is Carson McCullers. Her MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, and REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE are winter-less crucibles, in which individual human ingredients are combined with passion, and striving, and sweat, amidst leaves that never fall. Then those ingredients are swirled and re-separated back into their original human shells as changed people. Rarely are the changes clearly for good or ill…even death. Some are changed forever. Some revert to old paths and patterns and expectations.
In a land of no winter closing doors behind you is not necessary for comfort or survival, only for privacy. In a land of no winter, leave the door ajar. Going backward is always an option…an option too often and too quickly employed by too many…to too much disappointment.
I have a new Southern author to suggest…at least, she’s new to me.
I met Judy Higgins at a meeting of an arts-related board on which we both serve. When I learned she was a published author, I obtained a copy of her first novel; THE LADY, and asked her to sign it. I read it this week.
There are many echoes of McCullers in this novel.
It is a coming of age story, set in rural Georgia in the late 50’s. Television reception is painful, if it exists at all. Entertainment mostly consists of conversations in the kitchen, a grand piano, conversations on the veranda, high school proms, conversations over dinner, visits from neighbors…you get the idea; no texts, no emails, no Netflix…no screens……faces instead. Class/race inequalities and privileges abound. Human strivings, some for more, some for any, abound. Winter threatens no one’s existence, but what will that existence be?
Ms. Higgins seems to endorse the advice of Joseph Campbell.
“Follow your bliss.”
For Ms. Higgins’ young protagonist, music is her bliss.
In her struggles Chopin, Schubert, and Mozart are her weapons and her solace.
Her aunt’s advice?
Don’t let anyone come between you and your music.
Excellent advice from another fine southern writer.