Authors: Pearl Cleage
WHO NEVER CEASES TO AMAZE ME.
This one’s for you.
You were wild once. Don’t let them tame you.
Remember that you, yourself, are America.
e were already on our second round of drinks, and Howard had shown no sign of calming down. In fact, I think his indignation was rising along with his voice. At least we were sitting outside. That way the noise floated up and away rather than bouncing off the walls and driving the other patrons crazy. The International Sky Café has a nice little patio where you can drink and smoke unmolested and that’s where we had been encamped for the last hour and a half, almost two. The outdoor seating promised that the pungent smell of world-class ganja would gently surround anyone passing by, and practically guaranteed a contact high if you lingered. Marijuana and hashish are legal in Amsterdam, and it is not uncommon to see people sitting in outdoor cafés, reading newspapers and having a little smoke with their morning coffee, but Howard and I weren’t smoking today. We were ordering champagne by the glass and trying to make sense of what had just happened.
“I’ve been thrown out of places for being too black, too queer, too loud, too drunk, too hip, and too
but I have never,
been tossed out on my ass for being
Howard was working himself up into a pretty good rant, but we were entitled. We had been asked to leave the funeral of an Iraqi director who had been a close friend and collaborator of ours for years. The problem was that Halima’s relatives were there from Baghdad and the war wasn’t just a blurb on the six o’clock news to them. It was real. Even though she died in a boating accident, nowhere near a war zone, her family was still outraged at the presence of Americans,
Americans, soldiers or not.
“It wasn’t a question of degrees, Howard,” I said. “It was a question of citizenship. They were pretty clear about that.
Thirty years ago, our pain at the loss of our friend and our general sorrow about the fucked-up state of the world around us might have spun us into a long afternoon of passionate, awkward,
just need to feel alive
sex, ending in a good long cuddle, maybe a nap, and an evening out laughing too loud, drinking too much, and not giving a damn. The fact of Howard being unapologetically gay would not have been part of the equation. At those times, it wasn’t about gender. It wasn’t really about sex. It was about comfort, connection, and an unequivocal affirmation of life. This happened frequently when too many of my friends were dying of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. Being a practical sort, even in the midst of panic and confusion, I learned to put my diaphragm in and pack condoms before funerals, just in case.
Howard was still fussing. “I’ll tell you one thing, missy, this is my first and last time being tossed out of somewhere for being an American. An
! Can you believe that?”
His voice rang with equal parts incredulity and indignation. The very idea that he, Howard William Denmond, Jr., born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, could be mistaken for a first-class American citizen was beyond the scope of Howard’s experience or comprehension. We were
Americans, after all, not the other kind, and we were not used to being held accountable for their sins.
“So I look like John Wayne to you?” Howard was on a roll. “Can’t they see that we’re
We spend so much time defining ourselves as outsiders when we do get invited to the party, sometimes we can’t remember why we even wanted to go. I raised my eyebrows at him.
“Oh, excuse me, missy. We’re
, okay? African Americans!
Take your pick! All I’m saying is, we’re not
It suddenly occurred to me that in all the confusion, I hadn’t had a chance to share my other bad news. It never rains but it pours.
“Try telling that to François,” I said.
“What are you talking about? François knows it. He’s been around black folks so long he’s practically an honorary spook himself. If it wasn’t for that damn accent, we could pass him off as a Louisiana Creole and nobody would be the wiser.”
“He fired me.”
Howard was waggling his long, slender fingers at the waiter to indicate we were ready for another round. My words didn’t register at first.
The waiter, gliding between the tables like a dreadlocked Fred Astaire, nodded to acknowledge Howard’s gesture and disappeared.
“Fired me,” I said, draining the last of my champagne in preparation for another. When I turned fifty, I decided that the only alcoholic beverage I would consume would be champagne. Now I can spend all that time I used to waste looking at the wine list looking for a new job.
Howard frowned at me across the tiny table. “He can’t fire you!”
“Well, he took me into his office, closed the door, took my hand, and told me the board didn’t want me to open the season. What would you call it?”
“The board?” Howard snorted derisively. “That’s absurd! Beyond absurd! Since when does the board make artistic decisions? They wouldn’t even have a theater if it wasn’t for you! And François would still be directing those wretched little pieces he used to do in that awful space by the train station.”
It was an awful space, and most of the work that was presented there was distinguished by its passionate intensity, not its artistic excellence.
“I did some good work there.”
did! Not François and the rest of that crowd.
Howard snapped his fingers for emphasis as the waiter appeared with our drinks, scooped up our empties, and then stopped to peer at me quizzically. I knew that look. He just realized that he’d seen me in a movie, or at a film festival, or on a stage somewhere. The idea that I could have stopped in to have a few too many glasses of champagne in the café where he happened to be working was not something he had ever considered. In New York or L.A., I could walk down the street stark naked and not get the time of day, but here in Amsterdam, or London, or Paris, even Rome on a good day, I’m a recognizable face if not a household name.
“You are a bona fide star, missy. What possible reason could he give for firing you?” Howard said, not even noticing the waiter.
“Would you believe for being an American?”
Howard choked on his drink and started coughing like a maniac.
“Excuse me,” the waiter said, seeing his break and jumping in before Howard could catch his breath.
“I’m sorry, but…” The waiter was ignoring the presence of other thirsty customers as if we were alone in the room. “But are you…are you Josephine Evans? The
As opposed to Josephine Evans the pig farmer. I nodded, smiled, reached out to shake his free hand. “Yes, I am.”
“Thank you,” he said, his eyes filling up with tears. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Well, you’re very welcome,” I said, wondering what I had done to deserve such unabashed adoration.
Howard, fully recovered, was grinning at me like the Cheshire cat. “So you know Ms. Evans’s work?”
The waiter nodded. “Oh, yes! I’ve seen every play you’ve done since 1992. You’re the reason I became an actor.”
An actor-slash-waiter, I thought. “How old were you in 1992?” He looked like he was barely old enough now to be legally serving us drinks.
” he said, sounding breathless and amazed. “We were in a play together.”
That could mean only one thing. The only play I’ve ever done with children was
and I got to kill them at the end. A lot of actors will tell you never to work with kids or animals because they’re too cute or too fidgety, and in either case, you can’t compete. I thought that was good advice the first time I heard it and I still do, but the kids are on stage for only a minute or two in
and she’s so wonderfully crazed by then, there is no way any kid, even a seriously cute or terminally twitchy one, can compete with that.
“Were you my son?”
“Yes!” He almost gasped in his delight. “I was the older one. The one she stabs first. I can’t believe you remember me after all these years.”
“She never forgets a line or a face,” Howard said, reaching in his pocket for a pen and a piece of paper which he slid across the table to me. He knew the drill.
Smile, acknowledge, autograph, say goodbye.
“Well, my son, you grew up nice,” I said, teasing him gently, pen poised above the scrap Howard had provided. “Would you like an autograph?”
“Oh, would you mind?” he said, still ignoring the increasingly impatient people nearby, hoping to catch his eye for a refill.
“What’s your name?” I said, unprepared for the crestfallen look my question elicited.
Oh, my God,
This sweet baby actually thinks I remember his name after fifteen years!
I twinkled at him in a way that once would have been flirtatious but, since I’m old enough to be his mother, was only sweetly conspiratorial. “You know how we theater people are,” I said apologetically. “I only remember your character’s name. Do you want me to sign it that way?”
His smile returned. “Yes, of course, that would be fine. Oh, no, that’s not good. Then no one will know it’s for me. You better go on and make it to Julian.”
“To Julian,” I wrote, “a great actor and a wonderful son, your loving mother, Medea-slash-Josephine.”
He read it, smiled as if we now had an official private joke, bowed slightly, and backed away as if he were leaving the presence of royalty.
“See? That’s just what I mean,” Howard said, taking a sip of his champagne.
“About what?” The exchange had been pleasant, even routine, but suddenly I felt exhausted. The events of the last two days had finally caught up with me. I considered going back on my resolution and ordering up a vodka on the rocks with a splash of lime, but I don’t want to be unemployed
drunk on the same day.
“About the idea of them firing you being beyond absurd.”
“They fired you.”
He snorted dismissively. “They fired me for destroying those hideous costumes, not for being an American.”
He was right about that. Six months ago, a guest director with more ego than experience had clashed mightily with Howard about his designs from the first day of rehearsal. Nothing pleased the guy, and although he had no talent or experience as a costumer, he demanded changes up until the day before the official opening. After a while, Howard gave up trying to reason with the man and just did whatever was requested. If the director said he wanted a bustle on a miniskirt, Howard whipped it up and handed it over. The actors were mortified.
“What are you going to do?” I said the night before the opening after I’d watched a dress rehearsal and realized the costumes were even worse than anyone could have imagined. “Your name is still listed on the credits.”
“Don’t I know it,” Howard said calmly, hand-stitching a piece of pink silk with great concentration. “Pick me up at seven thirty tomorrow, okay?”
The next night, Howard dawdled around so long getting ready that by the time we got there, they were halfway through act one. I figured he was just putting off looking at those terrible costumes as long as he could, but when we crept up to the balcony to sneak a peek at the show, I was amazed to see the actors going through their paces, beautifully dressed in Howard’s original designs. Seeing my surprise, he put his fingers to his lips and led me outside around to the back of the theater. There in a pile of ugly orange, yucky yellow, and inappropriate purple were the hideous costumes the director had requested, neatly cut to ribbons.
Of course, François had to fire him for unprofessional conduct, but his costumes were so fabulous, and the story was so good, he’d been working nonstop ever since.
“Tell me François’s exact words.”
“Your firing makes a much better story than mine,” I said, trying to move on.
Howard raised one eyebrow in a way that people who didn’t know him found intimidating. “His
I couldn’t resist trying to lighten the moment by doing the accent. François was a Frenchman, raised in Spain, who had been living in Greece for a decade before we arrived in Amsterdam on the same rainy afternoon almost thirty years ago. He walked up to me at the airport, looking very hip and European, told me he was a director, and asked if I was an actress. Of course I was. I fell in love with him immediately. We lived together off and on for five or six years. At that point, we decided to stop driving each other crazy and just be friends.
In an attempt to be all things to all people, not one of his finer qualities, François deliberately rolled all his accents into one so that nobody could quite figure out where he was from. “I’m a citizen of the world” was his habitual response to direct questions, and most people let it go at that. That’s one of the best things about theater people. It’s our job to make stuff up. Characters, accents, costumes. The specifics of real time, real place are less important to us than the integrity of heart and sweetness of soul. Nobody held François’s accent against him. We had all come from somewhere else. Many of us had come from some
else. But once we found each other, we became members of the same tribe.