Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Grass Harp

I've been re-reading Truman Capote's The Grass Harp, which I read for the first time fall of my junior year in high school when our drama club was putting on the play Capote adapted from his novel. For some reason I can't figure out, that time has been coming back to me as the best experience I had in high school.

I had a very small role in the play, and that was all right with me. I was a rising star in the drama club but because I was smallish and skinny and had a talent for taking a prat fall I was specializing in playing comic servants. I had played a comic servant the previous spring and we were scheduled to do The Taming of the Shrew in the spring upcoming. The Taming of the Shrew is a goldmine for actors who play comic servants. Kate can't throw a potted plant without beaning a comic servant---and picking off another with the ricochet. I underwent a growth spurt the summer before my senior year and I came back to school after vacation ready to take on the role of John Proctor in The Crucible. It was leading men for me from there on out. In college I played so many heartbroken young love interests that I grew nostalgic for the days when I regularly walked into closed doors and got tossed over couches by large, angry miles gloriosos types of both sexes. I understand why actors like Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood and George Clooney move over into directing before their days as leading men are finished. It gets boring, always getting the girl. But in the fall of my junior year I was the resident Gilligan. There is only one comic servant in The Grass Harp and it's a female---I was disqualified for the part in another way too, which will become clear below--- so there wasn't a part for me. But our director, Mrs K, gave me something better to do.

She made me her assistant director.

Being Mrs K's assistant was like being the sorcerer's apprentice. She taught you all her tricks. You even got to run some rehearsals and give the actors their notes. That's when I found out it could be more fun telling someone else how to walk into a door or kiss the girl than doing either yourself.

My fond memories of the play and that time don't seem to be connected specifically to my work as Mrs K's assistant director or to the three stories I have to tell about our production of The Grass Harp.

I think it was just the case that a whole lot of things must have been going all right for me and my friends and my family that fall. The weather might have been fine too.

At any rate, here are my three stories. Two are funny, although you probably had to be there. One is perplexing. It perplexed me then and perplexes me now.

The plot of The Grass Harp is this. Two mildly eccentric spinsters, sisters Verena and Dolly Talbo, live with their great-nephew and their friend and servant, getting along pretty well, until one day Verena decides to make money mass producing an herbal medicine Dolly brews and sells to a small and select clientele. Verena is a sharp-tongued businesswoman who owns half the town. Dolly is sweet and dreamy and possibly a little bit off her rocker. Dolly is of course the saint and heroine of the story. Rather than let Verena have her secret recipee, Dolly runs away. Her nephew and the servant run away with her. They don't run far. They run into the woods at the edge of town where they take up residence in a tree house. Theirs being the kind of fictional small town where the doings of the main characters are of vital importance to all the secondary characters---the townsfolk are more concerned with what the Talbo sisters are up to than they are with their own lives---people take sides. The forces of convention and propriety side with Verena and the freer spirits side with Dolly. Several of the freer spirits come to live with Dolly in the woods. Verena dispatches the sheriff to get Dolly out of the tree and bring her home so that Verena can have her committed, Dolly's deciding to live in a tree a sure sign that she has lost her mind and become a danger to herself and society.

There are three important female roles. Dolly and Verena and their servant, Catherine Creek, who is black but insists she is full-blooded Indian. Serendipitously, the three best actresses in the drama club played the parts. They were all truly talented. Two of them went on to major in theatre in college and have short but productive professional careers. The third became a stewardess. That's what she called herself. She had wanted to be a stewardess from when she was a little girl and that's what she became, nevermind that all her colleagues called themselves flight attendents.

I say the casting of the three of them was serendipitous because only two of them were cast to begin with, Diane, who played Dolly, and Kennie, who played Verena. Mary got her part three weeks into rehearsals and I'll explain how that came about below, in the third story, the perplexing one.

Story number one.

It bothered all of us that Verena doesn't pay any price for the trouble she causes with her bossiness and conniving and greed. In the end, Dolly forgives her and the sisters are reconciled. They walk off together with their arms around each other's waists as the lights fade. We were awfully judgmental for people so young and who prided themselves otherwise on their bohemian attitudes. Mary was especially annoyed at Verena's getting off that lightly. Mary was a stern moralist. But she was also indignant on behalf of her character, who is left all alone and forgotten on stage at the end. She felt that the way Capote had written it, Dolly was in effect tossing aside the loyal Catherine for the scheming witch Verena. So she decided to rewrite the ending, if only for one performance, our final dress rehearsal.

A gun figures in the climax of the play. The gun goes off and someone is shot. This meant that one of our props was a working pistol that fired blanks.

Dress rehearsal. The play comes to its finish. Dolly and Verena hug and begin their slow exit when suddenly Catherine calls out, "Oh Verena?" Diane and Kennie turn around, startled at hearing a line they'd never heard spoken before, to face Mary, who has produced a gun from the pocket of her apron.

And Mary pulls the trigger.

Guns fired on stage make very loud bangs. That's why there's usually a warning in the program letting the audience know if there's going to be a gunshots.

Mary hadn't warned Kennie or Diane what she was up to, but she had told the stage crew.

Bang. Lights fade. Curtain falls on cue, as if Capote had written it that way.

I should mention that Kennie had sense enough to clutch her stomach and begin to fall to her knees. A trouper.

Second story.

Uncle Merlin played the sheriff. He was not at the dress rehearsal to see Verena get hers. He was home dying of food poisoning. He'd gone out to dinner the night before and eaten God knows what but it did not agree with him.

He really was deathly ill.

Which meant I was going to play his part. And I didn't look forward to it at all. It wasn't that I wasn't ham enough to want to perform. It was that I was all wrong for the part. Uncle Merlin is 6 foot 6. He has a booming voice when he needs to boom. At the time he had great bushy black sideburns. With a gun on his hip and wearing a knee-high pair of lace-up boots, he was one ferocious Southern lawman. I still had four inches to grow to reach my present height, I weighed about 125, and my voice had a tendency to crack when I needed it to be at its most manly and commanding. Having me play the sheriff would have weakened the play, but I was the only one who knew all the lines.

And I felt bad for Merlin. He'd been having a great time doing the part. So, while we were all praying he'd find a miracle cure, I was probably praying hardest.

And he found his miracle cure.

The morning before opening night I arrived at school to be greeted by the news delivered by a mutual friend that Merlin had recovered and was in school right now, a little unsteady but ready to go on with the show. I ran to find him. He was in the English Department office, where we drama club types liked to hang out, and when I saw him I rushed up to give him a hug. "Merlin," I called, "I'm damn glad to see---What the hell is that smell????"

I reeled back seven or eight feet and still couldn't breathe. I retreated a few more feet and, holding my nose, called over to him, "What ib dap Godawpul 'tench?"

"Garlic!" Merlin said. "Mom found a home remedy and cured me. Six whole cloves of garlic boiled in milk!"

The sheriff first appears in the play as he's rallying men to join a posse. Our director had Merlin bursting through the curtains into a spotlight to deliver his first lines straight to the audience. His speech began with him shouting, "Boys! Now, boys!"

I swear, when he did it that night, the people in the first two rows smelled the garlic and were overcome.

Merlin insists to this day they were just reacting to his powerful presence and commanding delivery.

Story three.

Mary was not originally cast as Catherine Creek. She was co-assistant director with me. Catherine is meant to be black. Mary was rather emphatically white. She described herself as alabaster. Ours was a fairly lily white high school. But one black girl had tried out for the play. She was not as good an actress as Mary was, but she wasn't bad, and our director, Mrs K, had a talent for bringing out the best in us.

Now, here is a rule that more high school, college, and community theater companies should learn and follow. If you don't have an actor who can do a part, don't do the play. And doing the part means looking the part. Some people have the idea that if you cast a really talented actor in the role, it doesn't matter what the actor looks like, the strength of the actor's performance will carry the audience along, convincing them that a short person is really six two, a homely one is handsome or beautiful, etc. This is true. Sometimes. When the actor dreadfully miscast is a lot more talented than most high school, college, and community theater actors are.

Mrs K always followed the rule. She picked plays to direct that she knew she could cast. She had a genius too for knowing which roles which kids could handle. While it's possible that a very good actor can convince the audience to accept her in a part she is physically all wrong for, it is much more often the case that a person who looks and sounds like the character can convince the audience she's actually a good actor.

As I said, our school was not very ethnically diverse. Mrs K confided to me later that when she decided to do The Grass Harp she didn't know if she'd have any black kids trying out for the play. But there were only a couple of references to Catherine's race in the script and she'd planned to change them from "colored"---the play is set in the 1930s---to "mixed" or "mulatto." And she was pretty sure she'd cast Mary, when all was said and done, because Mary, despite her alabaster skin, had black hair and black eyes and high, sharp cheekbones, and when wearing dark make up would (and did) look like an Indian, which is what Catherine Creek herself says she is.

But when the other girl tried out and turned out to give a decent reading, Mrs K decided she would have Catherine Creek be what Truman Capote wrote her to be.

Mary, by the way, had had the female lead in the spring production the year before and, as this was only her junior year, Mrs K expected that she'd be giving Mary another leading role in the future, which turned out to be the case. Mrs K liked to give as many kids as she could the chance to be in at least one play.

Unfortunately, the other girl, whose name I can't remember, I'm sorry to say, although not untalented was a bad actress in another way---she didn't give a damn. She blew off three or four rehearsals in the two weeks she was in the cast and showed no signs that she was memorizing her lines.

One afternoon, at the beginning of rehearsal, Mrs K had me call the whole cast together for an announcement. Mary was taking over the role of Catherine Creek. Mrs K didn't explain what had happened to the other girl other than to say that she had talked it over with her and they'd decided together that the girl really didn't have time to be in the play.

I said Mrs K confided in me about her thinking behind her casting of The Grass Harp. Confide is misleading because it implies intimacy and secrets. Mrs K did not gossip about her students and she did not talk to us about her personal life and feelings or pry into ours. She and I talked in purely "professional" terms because I was about to cast and direct my first play and I had asked her for advice.

What I'm saying is that I never did learn what happened with that girl. My sense at the time was that Mrs K had fired her from the play. On the other hand, it was possible that the girl was not enjoying herself. She may not have liked acting as much as she'd thought she would. And she may have been having troubles that made being in play more than she could handle or wanted to handle. It wasn't long after that that she disappeared from school. She'd transfered, we heard, but nobody knew to where or why.

But when I heard she was out of the show I felt strange. I was...embarrassed.

I got it into my head that my friends and I were somehow at fault. Maybe, I thought, we hadn't tried hard enough to make her feel welcome in the club. Maybe we had without intending to made her feel excluded. And maybe, I thought, we'd done it because she was black. Or maybe she thought we were doing it because she was black.

I was suffering a classic case of white liberal guilt, although I didn't know to call it that.

But after a few rehearsals, watching Mary take over the part and turn it from the comic supporting role it had seemed to be into the third female lead, I began to think something else, and this something else also embarrassed me.

I thought that Mrs K had been wrong not to cast Mary from the start. It was a mistake, I decided, to cast a weak actress just because she was black. The simple changes in the script that turned Catherine Creek from "colored" to "mixed" suggested that her race really wasn't important to the play. It wasn't as though we were doing Othello or The Emporer Jones. Another couple of changes and Catherine Creek could have been of no particular race at all.

And when I reached that point in my thinking, I began to reason the other way.

It was wrong that the only part that girl had been considered for was Catherine. Suppose, I said to myself, two black actresses had showed up at try-outs and the other one had been a better actress. The girl had one shot at a part, while all the white girls who tried out had five or six---seven, if you decided that Catherine Creek's race was irrelevent.

But if Catherine's race could be made irrelevent, why couldn't Dolly's or Verena's or the Minister's wife or the schoolteacher's or the ingenue's?

What if, I asked myself, my hypothetical second black girl had not just been better than the first girl, what if she'd been better than Diane or Kennie?

Shouldn't she have been cast as Dolly or Verena?

I was sixteen, but I wasn't an idiot. I knew I wasn't the first person to think these thoughts. I knew what Joseph Papp had been up to at the Public. I knew that color-blind casting was do-able, that it had been done successfully, and no wonder. Skin color is the least of the physical differences between any two human beings and the most trivial of the similarities. There have been thousands of Hamlets whose complexions were much darker or much lighter than their Gertrudes'. Untold numbers of Nordic Capulets had fathered decidely Mediteranean-looking Juliets. Expanding the possible shades of difference a little was no big deal. I knew this, but it turned out that I didn't know it.

When that girl had turned up at try-outs I had thought, along with probably everybody else, Oh good, we've got our Catherine Creek.

I did not think, Oh good, we've got a new member of the drama club.

I'd had no say in the casting of The Grass Harp, but I thought it over and concluded that if I had been in Mrs K's shoes I'd have probably cast that girl as Catherine Creek too. And if another, more talented black actress had tried out or if I had decided that the first girl just wasn't good enough to pull off such an important role, I probably would not have considered her for any other part in the play.

I'm not sure but I think this was the first time I realized that it was possible to think something, believe in it, and even espouse it, to champion an idea in conversations and in the classroom, to be sincerely for something, and yet not actually practice it and, even more bizarre to me at the time, not even be aware that you weren't practicing it, to be completely oblivious to your own hypocrisy.

And when I'd gotten my head around this idea, that initial embarrassment I'd felt when Mary took over the part of Catherine Creek came back on me.

I was a good little Liberal kid.

But just how good a person I was, that was another story.

You see, it isn't because so much time has passed that I can't remember that girl's name.

I had forgotten it by the next spring.


At 7:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I played Dolly Talbo in high school several years back. It was the director's dream to produce the play before our school so nicely fired him. It was my first time trying for a school play and it all started as a joke. Well, the joke turned on me when I recieved the part of Dolly. I agree with you on so many parts of the play. Verena and Dolly recounciling their differences as Dolly turns her back on the Judge always irritated me. While she was a free spirit, she was very naive. One monumental moment for me in the play was when I stepped down from the treehouse when the Sheriff arrived. Of course, I had to wear heels and costume people don't understand that you CANNOT climb down a ladder in a dress and heels. I fell, but miraculously I caught myself and only lost a shoe in the process. The guy who played the Sheriff made it seem as if he had pulled me from the ladder causing me to stumble. No one in the audience knew it wasn't suppose to happen, but I could hear the snickers of everyone else off the sides of the stage. Playing that part was something new for me and I will never forget that play.


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