The capper on yesterday’s list of admittedly first-world problems was a movie spoiler. Something related to being in a theater. So it was only fitting that the turnaround came from being in a theatre (and yes, I intentionally spelled them differently). Better put, I lost all of my drama by going to a place for drama.
Kim and I had to divide and conquer last evening, due to the boys needing to be in two different places at close to the same time. As you’ll see, it wasn’t exactly the same time, as it left enough time for something else to happen in between, but Kim wasn’t back from dropping Chris off before I had to take Matthew. And then we arrived at a weird sort of convergence – of multiple people and things from yesterday.
Matthew’s been cast in a play at Raleigh Little Theatre (RLT) – it’s called “Blood Done Sign My Name” and it’s about racial tension elevated to a horrific degree in 1970, in a small town not too far from where we live. Pretty heavy stuff for a 12-year-old, but he’s tackled it with aplomb. He had rehearsal last night, for which we typically drop him off out front at 7:00. Last night, however, he had a costume fitting at 6:45, and the costume shop is in back of the building.
Meanwhile, Chris was going to his prom, and was meeting up with a group of friends at one of their homes, then taking a limo around 6:00 from there to the rest of their destinations for the night. Of course they were going to dinner and the dance, plus an after-party. But I had forgotten they were going to have their pictures taken first at a popular spot for special event photos – the Raleigh Rose Garden. Know where that’s located? Behind RLT.
Matthew and I hit a drive-through on the way there, because he’d been too busy playing Fortnite to eat beforehand. (Don’t judge my parenting.) So he had his meal with him, but wasn’t able to finish. He had a couple of other things to carry in, and with a bag of food, I offered to walk in with him and carry something for him. (Don’t judge my parenting.) So we planned to park in the back and walk in together.
As we approached the building, I noticed a limo parked along a side street. That’s when I remembered. I knew it wasn’t necessarily the limo taken by Chris and his friends, but I was literally saying, “Hey, I wonder if Chris…” as we rounded the winding driveway to the back of the theatre and we spotted him at the same time. Before I could finish my sentence, Matthew shouted, “There he is!” with so much enthusiasm you would have thought way more than the actual 50 minutes since we’d last seen his brother. But you have to understand – the Rose Garden is a large plot of land, and it was packed with prom-goers. Spotting Chris was akin to finding Waldo, if Waldo wore a black tux and every illustration of him had 100 other boys in black tuxes.
I laughed in agreement with Matthew’s joy at having spotted his brother, but there was a little bit of worry behind it. Chris is an intensely private person, and we tend to honor his need to often be left to his own devices. (Don’t judge my parenting.) We’d taken a picture of him before he and Kim had left the house, and we knew it was going to feel like torture to have to pose for additional pics with his friends. Further, some of the other kids’ parents had followed the limo to take more pictures of their kids at the Rose Garden, so he probably was already a good bit outside of his comfort zone. I didn’t want him to think I was stalking him, and hoped if he saw me, he’d remember Matthew’s play and realize I wasn’t there for him.
But Matthew would have none of it. “I wish I could go down there to see him!” he exclaimed as we got out of the car and started walking toward the building. Which is really his way of asking, “May I go down there to see him?” (Don’t judge my parenting.) I thought this was kind of sweet, so I told him he could, but that I would stay up in the parking lot. Matthew ran down the hill and was warmly welcomed by Chris’ friends as they saw him approaching – then by Chris when he turned around and saw his little brother there! My relief was palpable as I gave a half-hearted wave from where I was standing, clearly not holding a camera and trying to look totally disinterested in the concept of taking a picture of the son who’s going to be leaving home all too soon.
Matthew came back up the hill and we proceeded toward the theatre, the momentary sadness at the passage of time returning my thoughts to my friend who’d been having a bad bout of depression. He was on my mind as we walked up the steps to the backstage door, and three seconds later, I saw him. The magic of theatre.
As we walked toward the costume shop, we passed by the studio where some rehearsals occur. Directly across the room from the open door, sat my friend. I was already past the doorway when that registered, and I backed up a couple feet to peek in again. There he was, knitting and smiling at me. I smiled, waved, and pointed down the hall to indicate I had somewhere to be, but would come back. The strange thing about it, though, is he wasn’t supposed to be there – he’d been cast in a play at a community theatre across town, and had posted earlier about the upcoming effort of pulling himself out of his doldrums to get to their rehearsal. Yet, there he’d been, sitting alone in a big studio, surreal as you please. Had I just conjured him? (Spoiler alert: No.)
I put Matthew’s food on the little table outside the costume shop as he walked in. I had been planning to leave quickly, but I’d been needing to ask one of his castmates about a show he’s going to direct at a third community theatre, and of course he was sitting just inside the door. In I went, to shake his hand, ask how rehearsals were going, and talk to him about that upcoming show. I didn’t notice the third cast member – the one silently being fitted at the back of the room – until we finished our conversation and I looked up to see what Matthew’s costume looked like. And found myself staring into the hooded, steely eyes of a Ku Klux Klansman.
Remember, this is a play about racial strife. There are Klansmen in the play, so naturally, there are Klan robes in the costume shop. And he happened to be trying his on. But when you encounter that sight up close and unexpectedly, you’re not going to immediately remember you’re in a costume shop. I’m a tall guy with a little weight on my frame, but with the hood and robe, this man looked to be imposingly large. And I believe he was getting into character, because I could have sworn he was glaring at me. My breath caught in my throat for a moment, then I pointed at him, looked at Matthew’s other castmate, and said, “Holy crap!”
The Klansman’s eyes went immediately softer; I’m pretty sure by then the actor was grinning behind the hood, which he reached up and removed before chuckling and saying, “Yeah, I felt the same way when I saw it.” His eyes were a little apologetic at that point. Mine went instinctively to one of the costumers I know who was also sitting there – and who happens to be black. She’d been staring at him all along, I think. She’s normally an ebullient load of energy, but of course she was sitting there in rapt silence, her expression was a weird mix of a bemused grin and abject terror. She looked at me and just nodded, as if to say, “Honey, you don’t have to tell me.”
I expressed to all of them how powerful this play is going to be, wished everyone a good rehearsal, told Matthew when I’d be back to pick him up, and got the hell out of that room. It was a horrific, yet oddly exhilarating, moment. The magic of theatre.
As promised, I stopped at the studio to see my friend for more than a moment’s glance and wave. He smiled when I rounded the doorway, and I knew it must be taking phenomenal effort on his part to do that. I wanted to give him a hug, but for some reason, that felt like it might be a violation. Just a vibe, so I let him stay seated without forcing him to stand and hug. Maybe I was being empathic, maybe I was just being awkward. I smiled and gave him a big “Hey!” in lieu of a hug, then asked the oh-so-inviting question of, “What are you doing here?” (Yep. Definitely awkward.)
It turns out, the other theatre didn’t have rehearsal space last night, and RLT had agreed to let them use its studio to rehearse. I love that. In almost any other business, they’d be considered “the competition” and it’d be unheard of to let them use the space and help them succeed. But in this business, collaboration rules. The magic of theatre.
We chatted for a couple minutes, then another friend walked in – he’s also in that other play. This time, I did give him a hug, then told them both why I was there, and about the surprise of seeing a Klansman in the costume shop. They had the same visceral reaction. They’re also both gay, so like the costumer, their feelings toward the Klan might run understandably deeper than mine. I was just full of awkward blessings last night.
Then I saw my second friend’s partner standing outside the studio door; he’s not in the play, but had dropped my friend off. I’ve worked with him in the past (in the same play as the other two friends I was currently chatting with), so I ran out to tell him hello. I was going in for a hug when he put his hand out, but he grinned and said, “Okay, bring it in.” Maybe awkward again? For an empath, it’s hard for me to tell.
We talked for a moment before I told *him* about the Klansman – I’d obviously been moved by the experience, and wanted to tell everyone. He had the same reaction. He’s both black and gay. My awkwardness is the gift that keeps on giving.
Before I left the building, their director showed up. I know of him, but hadn’t met him in person. He recognized me and went to extra effort to get my attention, introduce himself, shake my hand, and talk for a bit. That meant so much to me. That studio and the surrounding area were full of warmth last night, and it melted away every negative feeling I’d had all day. Even my own awkwardness didn’t bother me, and for once I didn’t chide myself over it as I walked away.
I left the theatre, practically skipped down the stairs from the backstage door, and hurried to my car, where I sent an apology text to Chris for having intruded on his prom time. He gave me a warm, reassuring answer, and I started to drive off. Coming down the stairs was the aforementioned partner who’d dropped off one of the cast members. I stopped and rolled down the window to chat for another minute before joking about us both being “theatre orphans” in that moment.
Rounding the curve in the driveway, I caught a glimpse of Chris and his friends, still waiting for the photo session to end. I smiled to myself and headed for home, texting Kim from the first stoplight to see if she’d like to go out for dinner. I’ve been grumpy and extremely nasty with her lately (and not in a good way), and I wanted to spend some time just being nice and not worrying about things before heading back out to pick up Matthew. We drove together to do that, brought him home to Fornite, and I sat down and blogged about my “bad” day while I waited for midnight to pass, so I could go pick up Chris.
When I got back into theatre in recent years, I thought it might be a midlife crisis. But I used to act when I was younger, and that urge never really goes away. Plus, if you get right down to it, I was acting in a sense every time I took the stage for improv during the past two decades. But there’s something more to theatre. As I’ve said a few times in this entry, the theatre has magic.
Sometimes the magic is evident on the surface, but sometimes you have to look under the hood to find it. But it’s there. And it’s powerful.