When I was a wee lad — perhaps 8 or 9-years-old — I acted in a lot of community theatre plays and musicals.
Acting was an opportunity to escape an ordinary life for one of imagination and history and it was a tasting of a freedom that has sustained me ever since.
Theatre made me an escapee from the mandatory expectations of a pedestrian community where staying and longing were demanded over exploration and fulfillment.
One valuable lesson I learned at that tender age happened at 5:00am during the live broadcast of a local television morning show.
I remember the day was bitterly cold. You could see your breath freezing into crystals on each exhale.
A few cast members of a musical were preparing to sing on the show. The woman who was accompanying us on a piano was Black and Blind and she was a permanent part of the morning show staff.
At that time in Lincoln, Nebraska, seeing a Black person anywhere — let alone on live, local, television every morning — was a rare event, and having a Black and Blind female celebrity playing the piano on television every morning was even rarer in the larger, socio-economic, scheme of a community where Race and Disability and gender were visible, but always ignored and never talked about in public.
When it came time for me to sing my part of the song during rehearsal, I would slow down, and then get faster, and then totally stop.
That happened several times before the Black and Blind accompanist stopped playing and said to me, “Darling, let me follow you. You just do your part, and you’ll lead me where we both need to go.”
I nodded my head — she couldn’t see me, but somehow she sensed my understanding — and she nodded back and smiled.
I understood she was learning the song by ear as we sang it. We had the sheet music, but since it was printed on paper, and not in Braille, it didn’t help her.
I had always followed the conductor at the theatre during the live performances. He would nod and cue me with a wagging finger when I was to start singing. Without that direction for me to follow, I was lost.
I realized, in order to have a good performance, I had to know I knew the song and be confident in my part and lift my voice forward instead of letting my energy lag behind.
She started playing the song again and I stepped center stage and sang my part, a little too fast, and a little too loud, and I kept looking at her out of the corner of my eye to see if I could sense any trouble. We made it through the song. I cheered. She cheered.
When it came time to do the live performance on television, I sang my part and she added twists and twirls to the accompaniment that hadn’t been there during rehearsal.
As I confidently belted out the final note of the song, a tremendous rising of kinship, knowing, and artistry filled the both of us and, for a moment in a cold and snowy Midwestern moment — we came together to create something greater than the two of us — and it was in that magic instant where trying and talent met that performance art was made and singing became a joy of the heart.