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Sunday, March 21, 2010

I loved the play. It was Maxwell Anderson's Winterset and I read for the role of Miriamne ... .

It was my junior year at Castlemont High School and I'd fallen in love with the movies. I must have been all of 17 and subject to dreams that soared! Being a movie star was the secret wish of every little girl I knew, no matter how far-fetched the idea might be. If all else failed, there was always Aladdin's genie to appeal to, right? And I had the kind of imagination that knew no boundaries.

Equally unlikely would be dreams of college for one with so few family role models to try to emulate . The assumption was that I would be Mel Reid's bride shortly after graduation. After all that was what pretty girls did, and when I look at photographs of myself taken in those years now, pretty was what I was. Successful girls were those who followed the traditional path -- and going to college usually was intended as a means of gaining access to potentially successful men. Independence for women was only important if one failed to attract a husband, preferably by your 21st birthday. I would be married by my 19th.

WWII had not yet exploded into a hot war and remnants of the Great Depression were still evident.

She must have been what today would be called a Progressive since this gritty Maxwell Anderson play was based on the Sacco-Vanzetti trials; controversial material for a high school class, surely. However, what happened would suggest that the politics of my drama teacher lacked the power to carry her to the place that would encourage acting on principle. I must have caused her great pain that day.

I was reading the part of the love interest, Miriamne, (I believe she was played by Sylvia Sidney in the screen version that I remember -- or was that "Street Scene"?) in a play with limited characters, almost all male. I loved the part and I'll always remember how quiet the room became as Eddie and I read from the second act of the script. I knew that we'd nailed it. It felt wonderful, and at some later time in history might have served to build momentum toward theater as a major. It was just too early in the struggles of the times.

When the period ended, the teacher passed my desk and dropped a note asking that I come back after the break. She needed to speak with me. I was convinced that she was going to praise me for my reading and (possibly) offer me the role in an upcoming production.

The bell rang and I approached her desk smiling; confident; feeling smug; maybe even cocky.

A red-faced obviously uncomfortable young teacher speaks: "Betty your reading today was truly wonderful. You and I both know that you would make a great Miriamne, but we also know, don't we, that there are parents who would be offended to see you paired with Eddie; because you're colored, you know ..." (her voice trailed off in embarrassment). I was not prepared for this, though once uttered, the obvious truth of her words was sobering; and devastating! How could I have ever dreamed of such a thing? Of course she was right. For those few days I'd gotten lost in the play. I'd simply forgotten.

Deeply hurt, I left the drama class and never spoke of the incident again. I registered the next day in public speaking. Ironic choice, though, since there was about as much chance of my becoming a community leader needing such skills as there would have been in theater.

But then there was Mr. Bill McLaughlin who conducted that class with a colorful larger than life personality that inspired great things in his students. He became the wind beneath my wings for the rest of that semester and through my senior year. Never underestimate the power of an inspiring teacher to reclaim young lives.

Kathy McCarty, Producer/Director of the Vagina Monologues, is not aware that this will be my "return to theater" after a 60 year absence!

Come if you can to the Craneway Pavilion in the Ford Point building on April 12th. There will be only one performance, but that's enough to satisfy this almost-forgotten dream. I didn't realize that it was still alive after all these years, or that this long-dormant ambition could be reawakened after six decades of suppression.

But there you have it. There is enough character in my role and I have enough sentences to allow me to feel fulfilled, and I'll be onstage with other actors for the duration of the play making a statement for Violence Against Women. It's not enough of a part to be taxing, and I've been assured that I can read my part and not need to memorize lines. I'll look smashing. We will all be elegant in "black with a touch of red," (perhaps in the form of a silk scarlet flower pinned low in my hair?).

It will be such a time!

(Now -- I wonder where I left that belt that I keep for notching ... ?)

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