Recently, the Texas Traditions Chorus, of which I am a member, had their spring concert. One of the songs we sang, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, always transports me back to my elementary days at Arusha School in Tanzania. The role of Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz was my debut as an actor, and that was my first big solo. I can still remember the tryouts. I carefully braided my hair in two long plaits and sang from the depths of my heart, doing my best to reflect the lyrics. I don’t think I had seen the movie or read the book, but I understood the message of the song. I had a few years of thinking I had really knocked that audition out of the park until one day our choir director told me she had been won over by my big sad eyes (she should see them now, big, sad, and baggy).
This role did not come without its problems. Becky Boyd had considered herself a shoe-in for it, since her mom was the director. And – let’s face it – Becky had a better singing voice and much more stage experience. Not long after I got news of my stardom, I got a note from Becky informing me that I had been un-friended (in the true friend sense, not the Facebook fake friend sense). Such sacrifices have to be made in the acting world. Little did we know that years down the road we would become best of friends and that her family would become my surrogate family when the borders between Kenya and Tanzania closed with my parents on the opposite side.
Thinking of my first taste of the stage, sent me down the lane of acting memories. I played one of the younger children in “Cheaper by the Dozen” in 7th grade. Being annoyed at my stage brothers didn’t take any acting ability whatsoever, because they were snapping us with rubber bands and pulling our hair. That look of pain really was a look of pain. Then I played Mr. Higgins’ mother in “Pygmalion”. I think I can say that my attempt at a British accent was almost as successful as Dick Van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins.
During my senior year of High School I was approached by Miss King to try out for an edited production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. This would be a travelling gig, as we would be using the Interim Class time provided for juniors and seniors to take a week to learn at some remote location from our boarding school campus. I landed the role of Puck, a mischievous sprite. I am not sure whose genius idea it was for us to perform Shakespeare to audiences that would be primarily non-English speaking (we were in Kenya). But since Miss King sometimes reads my blog (ahem!), I will assume her concern was more for our education than for that of our audience.
This trip was to be a series of unfortunate events. There were flat tires and luggage falling off the car, and a broken chassis. At one point we hitched a ride to a wheat farm, and I can’t help but wonder with whom. Towards the end of the week of performances in various parts of Kenya, we inched along home in a barely functioning van, under the supervision of a young single woman in the dead of night. If I had been Miss King, I think I would have been more than a bit flustered. As missionary kids who were raised in the wilds, we saw it all as a big adventure. But she was ultimately responsible for 12 teenagers in a country where auto mechanics and, well, places with functioning restrooms were not all that easy to come by. She does retain bragging rights to having her car worked on by a couple of guys involved in the East African Safari Rally, but still! Miss King handled it with the grace and tenacity of Karen Blixen.
We took turns sitting up front to talk to her while she drove. My turn riding shotgun stands out in my memory as one of those rare occasions from my years at boarding school when the formalities of teacher/pupil were put aside and we just visited like old friends. I don’t remember what we talked about (although my sketchy journal entries suggest she asked me what I looked for in a friend), but I have a sense of my words being valued by the listener.
At this point there arose such a ruckus from the back of the van that Miss King pulled over to the side of the road and said, “Alright! Everybody out!” And there we were: 12 tired, dirty teenagers jogging down the road in the beam of the headlights in front of a van going approximately 2 miles per hour on a deserted African road. The girls soon climbed back in the van to ride, but the boys held out quite a bit longer. I can still see their images in the headlights leaping like Impala down the dark road.
Interestingly enough, last Friday (after putting the finishing touches on this post) I encountered our Oberon (AKA Rob McNeely) at a funeral for another dear friend from Africa. We did a little reminiscing about the lifetime we lived that week as traveling thespians. He reminded me of the foamy heads (I don’t quite remember what that was about, but can assure you it was the most hilarious thing ever) and I reminded him of the phrase he coined that week, “Tarry, fairy!” We were amazed to find we live right down the street from each other. In fact, his family and mine have lived within about 10 miles of each other for the past 22 years without knowing it. We have hopes of getting together soon, if I don’t inadvertently run his bike off the road before then (it’s a new joke).
As I look back I can’t help but think what a rich life I have lived. I wish my journals held more details of trips like this one, and perhaps less poetry about teenage angst.
We have these moments to remember, vaguely.