Saturday, September 27, 2014

27 September 2014

Good morning,

I've shamelessly tuned to Lawrence Public Radio for the day, to avoid listening to the fall membership drive on KCUR.  I already give; I'm a lifetime monthly donor.  I don't need the pitch, and it annoys me.  Lest I be tempted to complain, I've found a way around it without losing the enjoyment of the morning radio shows.

I'm tired today, but feeling a bit more satisfied than usual.  I got a chance to see the Kansas City Actors Theatre perform Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead last evening, something to which I'd been looking forward for a couple of weeks.  My friend Brenda and I first dined at Eden Alley, a vegetarian restaurant that it turns out we both enjoy, and then on to Union Station and the play.  I had not seen a production of this work in so many years that I could not recall my last viewing.  It has not lost any appeal for me.  The deft acting of the members of KCAT did the absurd work justice.

My last thought before troubled sleep fell to the first time I saw professional theatre.  St. Louis, 1965 or 1966; I think it was Kiel Auditorium.  And as I drifted to sleep, I lost myself in that memory.

I'm nine, maybe ten.  I'm wearing a red plaid jumper and a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar.  My hair falls to the middle of my back in ringlets painstakingly formed by my mother while I sat on a wooden stool in the kitchen.  I had felt  a warm flush in my belly while I held still for her; my grandmother has given my mother two tickets to a play, and she has decided to take me.  

We take a bus downtown.  I stumble as we climb the steps; the driver looks down at me, a kind smile, a soft word.  "Take your time, Miss," he says.  His face looks worn.  I wonder if he has a little girl, someone who hears his patient voice every day.  I smile and slide into the seat behind him.  My mother settles next to me.  We've done this many times; the trips blur together.  

I hold her hand as we enter Kiel Auditorium.  The crowds frighten me.  I shrink against my mother's dress and cast a guarded eye at the men and women filing through the doors.  I see no other children.  But I don't feel out of place; I feel special. 

Our seats are high above the stage; it looks tiny but elegant, dark now, while the crowd settles.  I've been to plays but never in a room larger than my house, with strangers around me, way above the stage.  I saw my sister in "Carnival" at the high school.  She did props for "Bell, Book and Candle", and we all went because our neighbor's cat played the witch's animal.  But now I'm surrounded by women from whom wafts of perfume drift and men who smell of cigar smoke.  I settle into a velvet-covered seat and gaze down at the privileged people in the floor seats without envying them.  I wait.

The first strands of the opening song fill the auditorium.  I hang on every word sung by The Urchins:  "There is a beautiful land, where all your dreams come true. . ."  The lights rise to reveal the set:  A large, circular Game of Life, on which, for the next two hours, I will watch Anthony Newley as "Cocky" in this phenomenal touring production of "The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd".  I savor every note.  I slide forward to the edge of the seat and stay there, holding the brass rail, following the players' movements as they play a game in which the rules always change.

By the time Mr. Newley tells us, "My first love song, this is my first love song," I have fallen in love with him, with theatre, with the magic of pretending on a scale that I had never known and would never understand.  His vibrant British voice reaches our seats and lifts us into his alternating joy and chagrin.  

I want to go down to the stage and comfort Mr. Newley when he pleads, in the last song of the first act:  "Who can I turn to, if nobody needs me?  My heart wants to know and so I must go where destiny leads me.  And maybe tomorrow, I'll find what I'm after.  I'll throw off my sorrow, beg steal or borrow my share of laughter.  With you, I could learn to.  With you on a new day.  But who can I turn to if you turn away?"   His words, his voice, burn themselves in my mind and I know, at that moment, that I will never forget the sight and sound of him.

We don't leave our seats during the intermission.  I didn't know that in the lobby, people would buy drinks and some small snack.  I didn't know that we had no money for such luxuries.  I thought we stayed in our seats so no one would take them.  I did not want to miss one moment; I stayed in my seat so that I would hear the first note of the first song of the second act and each word after the first word.  

I feel a rush of excitement when The Negro wins The Game of Life, standing at the center of the board and raising his grand voice, finding his oneness with the world around him.  I close my eyes as he sings "Birds, in the sky, you know how I feel, River running by, you know how I feel.  It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life, for me."  

I want to know how he feels. I want to stand with him.  But I am far away, high up, in the last row of the house, a small child in a throng of grown-ups.  My chest heaves.

Sir and Cocky lock themselves in  battle, Sir wanting to control Cocky and Cocky wanting only a chance, only to be loved, only to be heard and understood.  I take my mother's little opera glasses to my eyes and see Anthony Newley's face as though I had been transported down to the first row.  His song washes over me as he and Sir realize that they depend upon each other:  "This, my friend, is only the beginning, such a sweet beginning too.  Now at last, I see a chance of winning, see a chance of breaking through.  Come on, my friend, let's send the whole world spinning:  Change, is what I recommend.  And so, my friend, let's see the sweet beginning through to the bitter end.  Through to the bitter end."  As the last note echoes through the hall, I feel my hands gripping the brass rail in front of me and realize that I have stopped breathing.

I don't see the passing streets as we make our way back to North County, back to our home in Jennings, back to my small bed, in a shared bedroom, in a house of many children, too little food, and too few dreams.  The strains of the closing refrain of "A Beautiful Land" follow me:  "And if you travel the world, from China to Peru, there's no beautiful land on the charts.  And you're full of the lucky gift, to discover it for yourself, for the beautiful land is in your heart.  Your heart.  Your heart."

I haven't heard the news, nor the first stories on NPR's Morning Edition.  My coffee has grown cold.  The dog has abandoned her quest to draw me to the kitchen and her food.  My neck creaks from bending  to see the laptop.  My wrists strain at the wrong angle for typing.  I have not noticed any of this.  I glance over the words I have written.  I squint a bit, partly because I have discarded my inadequate glasses in favor of leaning my face close to the screen, and partly because I am trying to picture that night, nearly forty years ago.  I ask myself, Was I really the only child who went with my mother?  Did Frank and Steve go, too?  Did we really take the bus, or was that a different trip, to Grandma's house?  I think I remember it as it happened; I've typed the words of the songs from memory; I feel more sure of that, then my recollection of the color of my dress or the feel of the opera glasses against my face.

The exact details do not matter.  What matters is this, and only this:  On that night, a little girl sat in a very big theatre, and found a way to let the cares of her troubled world fall away.  The world of acted make-believe would be a comfort for that girl many times over; and later in life, when the solace of escape did not seem so critical, the memory of that first experience would nonetheless linger.  Only a note would be necessary -- one note, one bar, of one song -- to bring that girl back to the seat high above The Game of Life, where Anthony Newley sang to her:  My first love song:  this is my first love song.  But it takes a poet to make a rhyme.  I'm not clever, I could never ever sing the praises worthy of you.  Each endeavor I may make to sing your praises may not sound as it should do.  But I love  you.  Please believe I love you, and I love the way poets do, to bring my love song, and sing my love song to you."

And The Girl answers:  My first love song:  this is my first love song.  No one's ever needed my love before.  You're like I am.  All alone like I am and in need of someone to care. . . If you love me, as you say you love me, I would be so happy to see you bring your love song, and sing your love song to me."

Mugwumpishly  tendered,

Corinne Corley

To hear a lovely rendition of "My First Love Song", go here:  

My First Love Song

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.