Monday, April 19, 2010

Origins

Is it time for an embarrassing memory? I think it is.

Most writers have touching anecdotes about how they’ve been telling stories since they learned how to talk, making their parents write the words down because the budding genius was currently illiterate, how they won competitions when their age was still in the single digits, how they’ve always known that this was their calling, etc.

I have a story like this too.

When I was seven years old, I read the Betsy, Tacy, and Tib stories. These are a series of books about three girls growing up at the turn of the twentieth century and the various adventures that they embark on. In one of the books, the girls see a theatrical version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and decide to put on the show themselves for their friends and family. For some reason, this struck me as the best idea ever and, always one for originality, I decided that I would do the same.

I knew nothing more about Uncle Tom’s Cabin than the sparse details that were included in the book (I had never heard of it before, actually). There were characters named Eva, Topsy, and Uncle Tom. And it was about escaping from slavery. Or something like that. I had all the information I needed for a brilliant script.

The only problem with this plan, I soon realized, was that neither I nor anyone else in my family was Black. Of the little that I understood about race at that age, I knew a bit about slavery, and this was a crushing dilemma. Soon enough, though, I came up with a way around it. My play would not be a mere adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it would be an entire reworking of the story. This would also, I reasoned, make up for my general lack of knowledge about the original plotline. I thought like a lawyer back then. But my ‘reworking’ morphed into one of the most politically incorrect works of fiction that ever sprang from the mind of a seven-year-old.

The story would be set in 1995 Minnesota (I’m really not sure why I chose that state; probably because I was also obsessed with the American Girl stories at the time, and my favorite doll, Kirsten, was from there. Again with the lack of creativity even in my creative pursuits). Eva, who was now the star of the story, would of course by played by me. Topsy, who I somehow perceived as Eva’s younger sister, would be played by my three-year-old sister, Kayla. Uncle Tom would be played by my grandfather, who went along with all my schemes in those days. And a new character, Grandma, would be played by my long-suffering grandmother. The crux of the plot would be that 130 years after the civil war, minority groups in Minnesota were revolting and enslaving frightened Caucasians as vengeance for the first round of slavery. Eva and company need to escape to California, with a covered wagon as their only means of conveyance. Hilarity ensues.

My grandfather, bless him, wrote down the script for me since my newly-learned handwriting was still slow and shaky. In his infinite wisdom, he took down my dictation word for word, but removed all mention of race, correctly guessing that I wouldn’t notice the difference until after the show. Now, the vague ‘bad people’ were trying to enslave Eva’s helpless family. Additionally, I had wanted to kill off the Grandma character in a touching death scene, but this idea earned me a long lecture from my real grandmother, so the character ended up bedridden, but alive.

At first I conceived of the show as an epic musical affair, with full costumes for the four cast members and half a dozen songs (both original pieces written by me and pilfered show tunes that seemed to fit in). As the date of the performance drew near, though, a few key issues appeared. Namely, that I had no knowledge of how to write music, no accompaniment, no budget for costumes (or anything, really), no theater to perform in, and one of the cast members didn’t know how to read.

In the end, my grandparents’ living room served as our performance space, with my family watching on dutifully from around the dining room table. I was the only one in costume– a leotard under one of my mother’s old skirts. My sister wore a party dress. My grandparents and I held our scripts, since we hadn’t bothered memorizing them, and we took turns whispering lines to my sister, who resolutely refused to repeat them. She seemed bored with the show in general and spent most of it running around in circles, throwing her skirt over her head and giggling at the video camera. The show’s finale was supposed to involve my character tumbling off a cliff and into the arms of Uncle Tom, but the house was decidedly lacking in cliffs, so I jumped off the sofa instead. I sang one of my songs acapella, feeling that the performance would not be complete without it.

Since my family has some level of compassion, they applauded, and the affair was mercifully finished. I tried to write a sequel (called Uncle Tom’s House), but my time as a playwright had passed, and I couldn’t find the inspiration to finish it. To this day, this catastrophic event is one of my family’s favorite inside jokes, a “remember when…” that comes up every so often. The worn notebook that my grandfather wrote the script in still sits on a shelf in my closet. My grandmother still gets mad at me for wanting to kill her character.

So that was my first and last foray as a playwright. It was the first work I ever completed and one of my fondest memories of childhood. An auspicious start to my career.

-Melissa

1 comments:

Erica Procopio said...

wait. wait. wait.

you said 'video camera'.

that means I can watch this.

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