(Beware…if you are a faithful reader, this is a somewhat long entry. Please forgive me! Had a lot on my mind…)
As many of you are aware, I have been in Scotland since September 29th of 2008 working towards getting my Masters degree in Musical Theatre this upcoming November. What that means, of course is that I am pursuing a career as an actor (which means I will have definite highs and lows, and financial hardship until I am considered “the bomb-dot-com.”) As an actor, it is my duty to bring a character to life in order to tell a playwright or screenwriters story. I must employ every tool I’ve come across to make that happen. But of all the skills that I use the most, it is my ability to observe things very closely and in detail. As an actor, the more I can listen while in a scene, the more honest my reaction will be. Honest in this sense refers to how truthful I can be to the character I’m portraying while he is in a scripted moment. Therefore if someone does something to please my character, he might respond by singing a song, or throwing his arms around the love of his life. If someone or something angers my character, he plots revenge, or pulls out a weapon and handles his business, or defends his reputation. These are all the things we expect actors to do: tell a story, be in the moment, and react to situations honestly. To fail at all of these means an actor isn’t doing his job
For the past couple weeks, I have been juggling with the idea of reacting honestly to situations. You see, in real life, it seems as if people are criticized for reacting honestly to everyday situations. Example: I came to Europe because I was quite sure that doors would open for me and that I would be able to play a variety of roles once I got over here. However, just as in America, I have been told that more than likely I would be up for race specific roles. Not that I am against playing black characters. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I yearn, however, to play a role that has a universal appeal. Why should Will Smith or Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman be the only major crossover black men? And why do I have European men -who mean well- pushing me into the direction of The Lion King or (insert name of black musical here)? I have so much more inside of me. My mission statement for my life, as some know, is to redefine the image of what it means to be a black man in this world. I know that I am doing that with each passing day. But I digress.
Once it was suggested to me that I look into shows like Lion King and things more soulful, I got angry (an appropriate emotion, if I must say so). Here I was being labeled without someone actually labeling me. Soulful has just as many connotations as other names I have been called in my life. Why shouldn’t I be defensive? And why shouldn’t I fight to do something that isn’t so limiting? I know there is so much more to me than meets the eye, and yet…it remains that I will always be judged by what I look like, and outward everythings until someone takes the time to get to know me. But this is something we all know and have heard thousands of times before, right?
Then there are small-scale moments when you react honestly to something and get a stigma attached to you. Example: I have been to a lot of parties with friends of mine. But back in January there was a party I attended where I was displease with a lot of my friends behavior when they were drunk. They did not seem like themselves and instead of confronting them (since I have abstained from confrontations these days) I got pissed about it. My anger manifested itself through under-the-breath commentary and some snappy comments made to people’s faces. In the moment, I was responding appropriately. However, I would be known as the party-pooper who unnecessarily made people uncomfortable. My logic was, “if you saw that I was angry or felt uncomfortable, then don’t come near me.” 9 times out of 10, if you give me a good 30 minutes to an hour of me time, I can get back in the swing of things. However, most people try to diagnose me, fail miserably, and then hold it against me for the rest of my life. And all because I reacted honestly.
After my grandmother passed, I decided that being angry may not have been the way to live my life. Cool. I accept that. However, if I felt something, I wasn’t going to suppress it by keeping it inside either. Why should I suppress anything? I’ve heard too many stories of people who have heart attacks or turn to alternative methods (i.e. drugs) to help them show emotion. That cannot and will not be me. Unfortunately, for someone who set out to write about reacting honestly, I’m not doing a good job of being articulate about it. Therefore, it requires a bit of discussion as some people will still be unclear as to what I’m talking about, while some people, I’m sure are bound to disagree with me entirely (which I’m finding out gradually is becoming the case).
However, there are some moments in life when reacting honestly is appropriate and not the blurry line that I’ve drawn above.
That morning, I awoke knowing it would be the day we buried my grandmother. March 7th 2009. I also knew when I awoke that my sister would be forever haunted by this day as it was her birthday. I showered, and put on my 3 piece suit from Pri-Mark (a store almost like Target but with better clothes). I made sure to wear a version of pink and blue (two of the colors optioned for my grandmothers casket). I wished my sister a Happy Birthday and I watched as my family got everything together to leave the house. The next couple moments were a blur to me. I real leaving Suffolk, Virginia to head to Norfolk, my hometown (and the town that has changed considerably since I last lived there). I ended up at the barbers shop to make sure I looked fresh at the funeral. Grandmomma would’ve wanted me to look presentable regardless! And never the one to look like a slouch, I shaved everything off. When I was done, I headed over to the funeral home. I’d missed the wake, but I would still get the chance to have a private moment with my grandmother before she was interred.
I saw her and I smiled. Yes, she was at peace and she was beautiful in her blue casket and her baby blue shawl. I touched her hands (making her the first dead person I’ve ever placed my hands on) and I understood for the first time why most people associate death with cold. For a woman who gave me nothing but warmth, she was glacial in temperature. But I only felt heat.
The heat began to sting my eyes first and then dripped down in two parallel lines. The tears caught in the upturned corners of my lips. I was crying like crazy but smiling. My cousins and my mother came over to me and kept saying “Tom, it’s alright. See, she’s at peace now. Look at her.”
I was looking. And I saw that she was at peace, but I had a war going on inside of me about what emotion to let out first. I was happy that she was in heaven. That was a given. But then I wondered if my being happy for her was me convincing myself of that truth. Then I immediately thought back to the way she died and was pissed. I kept thinking, this beautiful strong woman did not deserved to die alone on the fucking floor of her house. Where is the justice in that?!? My oldest uncle (one of the incarcerated ones who was allowed to come see her at the funeral home) was also livid. He soon caved, however, and his bawling outdid mine (as I was trying to figure out what emotion was appropriate to have). In the end, we all wiped our tears and headed to my grandmother’s house.
A reunion. That is the only way to describe what happened my family and I reached my grandmother’s house. I saw family I hadn’t seen in a while, friends of family who were always in attendance at cookouts and family functions, and I saw family who could probably care less about me (the latter being a group that talked so negatively about me but were so surprised that I grew up to be such a smart, well-spoken, attractive example of progress). We departed the house together, the bulk of the family dispersed between 3 black stretch limousines.
I remember thinking, as we drove to the church, how beautiful the day was. The sun was shining brighter than I’d ever remembered it. It was a big difference from a lot of the rainy funerals I’d been used to attending. I did the “catch-up” conversation with my cousins while on the way to the church and awaited our arrival at Second Calvary Baptist Church, the only church I knew from birth until I was 18.
Stepping out of the limo was like being a celebrity, but there was no paparazzi. Only the glimmering eyes of the mourners who were sad for all of us, but mostly sad (I could see) for my mother who walked with grace and carried herself like a true matron. We all entered the church, and it happened. I saw my father. The last time I saw him was when I left for Scotland. If my Grandmomma could bring him out of the dark and into the light, then she was truly a woman who had an effect! I embraced him and the funeral commenced.
I could go into detail about the service and about the song I sang and about the underlying feeling of betrayal that occurred midway through the service, but that would make this entry longer than necessary. And it might cause a lot of anger among a lot of my family who may read this. So I will give some highlights:
- I sang a musical theatre song from “Parade”, for which I re-wrote the words. I tagged another song called “Don’t Cry for me” to the end of that because it was my grandmother’s message to her family. My voice cracked a bit, but I didn’t break into tears.
- The Pastor made it clear that we’d only have time for 2 or 3 people to share memories of my grandmother (ex-squeeze me?). And these memories were to be limited to no more than 2 minutes.
- The Pastor chose to focus on “how much my grandfather did to take care of my grandmother” when it was more than apparent to outsiders that my mother and my grandfather shared the task of caring for her.
- The Pastor did not reference my mother at all or acknowledge her presence during the service, nor did he acknowledge mine as we were members of his church for the bulk of my life.
- My grandfather did not shed one tear.
- I zoned out of the eulogy when I realized that my Pastor had no clue who my grandmother was, and was only spitting out bullshit rhetoric which ended up sounding nice, but to those of us who knew better…we knew that the encouraging words he spoke could’ve been said by a character on sesame street and had more sincerity.
At the end of the day, the Pastor got one thing right. My grandmother was prepared to leave this world. Getting her funeral together was the quickest and smoothest thing I’ve ever seen happen. She got everything she wanted, right down to the color of her casket and she ended up in a mausoleum. Apparently, there were 5 levels in her mausoleum, the topmost level being called “Heaven.” Nellie Jones always had a spot reserved there when making her funeral plans, and knew she was destined for that place. So not only is she in “Heaven” in the figurative sense, she made it there in the literal sense as well.
I keep trying to figure out why I’ve written this blog, which is not the greatest when it comes to being articulate. Maybe I was just reacting honestly in the situation.