Thursday, March 07, 2013

What I Do For A Living, Part 3: "You didn't write that...did you?"

i have always loved to read and write.

i can't remember when expressing myself on paper with words was anything other than effortless.  i'm sure this has something to do with my stay-at-home mother who taught me how to read at such an early age. when i was three, there were letters and then there were small words and then there were dr. seuss books. by the time i hit kindergarten, i could read with the comprehension of a kid twice my age. 

i zipped through one advanced placement english class after another with relative ease, churning out essays and whatnot at will. when i was 12, an english teacher insisted that i turn in a journal as a weekly assignment and i've kept one ever since. when i was in college at ut austin as a freelance writer for a student newspaper, i thought it was kind of kitschy to get paid to write, but that was it. it wasn't until i came to new york city that writing mattered professionally.

what happened?

strange but true: when i came to new york city, i thought talent actually mattered. that's right: i honestly believed that if i did a great audition for a show, i'd get it because i was the best one for the part.  i didn't realize that there were all these other factors at work. like my height. or someone else's height in relation to mine. or if my size 4 body fit into the size 16 costume, or headpiece, or whatever costume i had to wear. or whether or not someone behind a desk thought that i was pretty enough.  or my blackness. yeah -- i know, right? believe it or not, i honestly thought: "this is theater. everyone has the willing suspension of disbelief so it doesn't matter that i'm black. i'll audition for every female role in my age range and my talent will get me the work." it never dawned on me that i could be the best one for the part and not get it because i couldn't fit into the costume or somebody thought that i was ugly or i was the wrong kind of black girl for that part, because the negro doing the casting was colorstruck.  none of that ever entered my mind.

when it finally did, i was profoundly depressed. i didn't believe that i was pretty enough to do film and tv -- and even if i were, i wouldn't really get to act.  theater and musical theater was my home base. with this realization, it was gone.

and then for some reason, i went to see john leguizamo in mambo mouth at the american place theater, and that's when all the lights came on. i had never seen a solo show.  i didn't know that such a thing existed. as i watched him work, all i could think was, i can do that. i went home that night and wrote a monologue, almost as a reflex. it just fell right out of me. the next thing i knew, i was performing it at ps 122. two one person shows and a ton of showcases, workshops and festivals later, i've got a sold out run at joe's pub for my newest idea, queen esther: unemployed superstar.

all of a sudden, a whole world of options opened up to me. i was no longer at the mercy of a casting agent.  i didn't have to wait for the phone to ring.  if it did ring, that was terrific but if it didn't, i could employ myself. i came up with ideas, i developed them, i performed them. boom-POW, just like that. ideas oozed out of me all the time.  keeping that journal since childhood shook a lot of them loose without my fully understanding what was happening. eventually, i shifted gears, started writing lyrics and songs -- and that meant more work.

last april, several performers and i -- francesca harper, charles wallace and keith thomas, respectively -- performed the billie holiday project, a show that i'm still developing, at the apollo theater's music cafe.  how strange was it to chat with people in the audience afterwards, so genuinely surprised that i wrote it.  for those who don't know me at all, getting accepted to nyu's tisch school of the arts mfa program was an astonishing feat. the real coup will be finding a way to pay for it.

what happened? all at once, i realized that i'm an originator, not a replicator.  there have been rough moments, sure -- but i haven't looked back. i can't change who i am.

(to paraphrase paul harvey: "...and now you know the rest of the story.")

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