Monday, November 08, 2004

How to Prune a Family Tree (Part 1 of 3)*


SHE WAS A LOT OF WOMAN to be falling that far.

A split second before, the woman had downed two mouthfuls of peach martini to lessen the likelihood of its spillage in the whir back to her seats. The curtain already risen for Act II, she was late from Intermission. There were five perilous steps between Row K and the front of the stage.

Sold out for months, it was the world premiere of Ashby’s scandalous "Confessions of a Cornbread Queen." Emily Ashby (originally from Alabama, now residing in England) would only be the greatest Southern playwright since Tennessee Williams! Earlier in the day, Jamaal, the male lead had suffered an allergic reaction to some gumbo - which fellow cast member, Leon, had been kind enough to bring back for him during the final run-through, which ran well-through lunch.

"It‘s chicken gumbo," Leon assured the starving actor, handing him the Cajun poison. "I even asked the cook for a list of ingredients. I explicitly stated, No shellfish! He’ll swell up, turn colors… die, even."

Jamaal didn’t die from the gumbo, but the actor, in spite of his naturally tar-like complexion, did turn lots of colors. And guess who just happened to be his understudy…

When Leon first held the holy script nearly two years ago, he saw the Light (even if it was a stoplight.) And when he learned that the Appliance Theatre was staging the world premiere production in Atlanta?

He took a university course on Homiletics; he set up an altar to the playwright by his bed; he even shaved his beloved auburn dreads. He put on thirty extra pounds; nothing was going to stop him - not even the Casting Director casting Jamaal in the role instead.

All of the city’s major theatre critics were there: Dolores Stein from City Papers, that blue-haired ice queen from The Journal, the pearl-clutching Oscar Martinez from Black Box. Even the famed playwright crossed the Atlantic to be in attendance. But then again, who wasn’t at the world premiere of Ashby’s latest masterpiece, starring – not Jamaal, but – Leon Lattimore as the charismatic Pentacostal preacher, Reverend Brown?

Act II, Scene One

Leon poised to launch into his monologue—the monologue. The one where Reverend Brown defies all pastoral decorum and, eight feet tall in the pulpit, unveils his undying love to the lowly Cornbread Queen, a lost congregation of one.

Two years Leon had waited for Atlanta’s adoring eyes, their eager ears, their applause. His jaw trembling with the nuanced tenor of a Pentacostal preacher, he began, "When Gawwwwwwwwwd made Woman-"

Leon sent chills even down his own spine. As he summoned his next breath, the audience murmured with anticipation.

He continued:"He took the riiiiiiiib-"

Then, Crack!

The heel broke.

Then, an eardrum-bursting, "Whoop!!!!! Whooooooooop!!!" echoing from wall to wall as the woman with the peach martini collapsed like a house of one hundred thousand Tarot cards.

That’s how long it took. A hundred thousand cards.

She rolled. Her rolls rolled. Her rolls’ rolls rolled. Eventually, all 350 pounds of Leon’s Mother tumbled down the aisle. (Imagine some large planet, like Saturn, hurtling out of orbit.)

Blinded by the spotlight, Leon recoiled at the sound. Though disoriented, he would not be denied.

"But God said,” Leon stammered in character, “God said," as if a heavenly commandment might avert this hellish disaster, "God said, The show must go on!"

But rather more like Godzilla than God, the show went. What Leon heard: A chain reaction of gasps and screams warning unsuspecting patrons seated in his Mother’s wake. One considered leaning in to her rescue while the rest scrambled on hands and knees for dear life. (Imagine Saturn, hurtling out of orbit and dragging its dozen moons with it.)

What Leon saw: At the periphery of the blaring light, a ripple through the audience. And on the very front row, the playwright, Emily Ashby, as astonished as if she had just witnessed the Rapture – and been left behind.

Leon was a deer in headlights when his mother finally crashed on the interior of Row B - seats 4, 6, and 8. An unsuspecting Black boy, seated at ground zero, wound up traumatized to such an extent that this first theatre experience of his life would be his last. (Decades later, it would take a group of expert Emory psychotherapists to finally diagnose the man’s condition – Caucasiamammariaphobia: fear of the White titty.)

Emily Ashby did manage to stand - just before fainting. Oscar Martinez, the critic, snapped his imaginary strand of pearls. The house lights went up. The curtain crashed down. And behind its red fabric, Leon remained paralyzed, his mind emblazoned with this final image: The woman, who called herself his mother, in tacky floral print and loud red curls – arms out, legs up - lowly moaning like a beached whale.

Oh, how the paramedics rushed in; oh, how they heaved-and-hoed to carry her out; and oh, how the 700-plus hysterical patrons scattered from the theatre.

The Appliance refunded everyone’s money, but who would refund Leon’s pride? And despite Leon’s most imaginative efforts, naturally, Jamaal, the male lead, wouldn’t miss another show.

Next: Part 2 of 3 from my entry to this year's Creative Loafing Annual Fiction Contest

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