Acting was her passion. But what happens when your dream gets crushed?
Posted in , Jun 28, 2013
How is a dream born? For me, it happened the day I saw a member of the choir at my daddy’s church recite “The Creation” by the Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson. She did more than speak the words; she brought them to life.
When she said God Almighty “flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,” it was as if it were happening right before my eyes. And I was struck with a longing to be onstage myself, transporting an audience to a world beyond the everyday.
I was only a girl of 10 then, but the dream stayed with me through my growing up in Kansas City, through college, then my years of teaching high school English. The value of a good, secure profession had been instilled in me.
I was the first in our family and our church to go to college. Mama had worked 12 hours a day, every day except Sunday, saving for me to go to the University of Kansas. I acted in church plays, school plays and community theater, but I figured it was something I would do on the side, not make a living at.
Then one night I got a call out of the blue. It was a producer I knew from doing local plays. He’d moved away and I hadn’t expected to hear from him again.
Yet here he was offering me a role in a major production by an up-and-coming director, a musical version of Truman Capote’s novel The Grass Harp. Rehearsals would start in two weeks in Providence, Rhode Island.
Even though every fiber of my being wanted to shout, “Yes!” I asked the producer to give me a day to think about it. I called Mama right away and told her. “The show runs October through May,” I said. “I’d get a union contract with Actor’s Equity and a weekly salary.”
Mama said, “I know you ain’t gonna quit your good job.” But that’s exactly what I did. I resigned my teaching position, gave up my apartment, sold my furniture, left my car with my sister and moved to Providence. This was my dream calling me and I wasn’t about to turn a deaf ear.
Mama thought I was having a nervous breakdown, but I knew this role was an answered prayer. It was everything I’d hoped for, working with and learning from seasoned actors, being steeped in theater morning, noon and night.
I knew I could never go back to just acting on the side. This was my new life.
The Grass Harp was a rousing success during previews at the Trinity Square Repertory Theater. There was talk that the show would move to Broadway. The morning of opening night the cast had an early call, which we all grumbled about.
Adrian Hall, the director, entered briskly and asked us to take out our scripts. “I have a few cuts to make before we open tonight. Then we’ll have a brief run-through to tighten up those scenes.” He scooted his stool closer to us.
“Okay, on page twenty-five, where Ginger enters, cut to her exit at the bottom of twenty-seven. Now skip to the top of page forty-one and cut to the middle of forty-eight.” Ginger was my character. He’s cutting a lot of my lines, I thought. “Last cut. All of scene two in the last act.”
That’s my big scene! I raised my hand. It was ignored.
“After the run-through, go home and get some rest,” the director continued. “We have to wow them tonight.” He left the stage. I got up to go after him.
The stage manager grabbed my arm. “Where are you going?”
“I have to speak to Adrian. I don’t think he realizes he cut all of my lines.” He said quietly, “The play was running too long, so Adrian decided to cut your part.”
“But we’re opening tonight!” I felt faint. I could hardly catch my breath.
The stage manager put his arm around my shoulders. “Honey, this happens all the time in the theater. It’s not personal. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really do have to start the run-through.” I ran to Adrian’s office. He was gone.
I’m going to the theater tonight, I thought defiantly. I wore the new outfit I’d bought for the opening night party. I sat in the audience reading my bio and staring at my picture in the playbill.
I slipped out of the theater during the curtain call. I walked aimlessly, my head down so no one would see me crying. Is this how a dream dies? I asked. Oh, God, what am I to do?
A few days later, I went to the theater to pick up what I thought would be my last check. I found out that my contract would be honored. I would continue to be paid even though I was not performing.
I decided to stay in Providence until the contract ended, in May. I needed something to fill my days. I didn’t know anyone in town except the other actors, so I joined Ebenezer Baptist Church, a small church with a dynamic pastor and a beautiful first lady. I enjoyed many Sunday dinners at their home.
I got a job as a substitute teacher. After school, not wanting to spend evenings alone, I went to the Providence Public Library. I became friends with one of the librarians.
I told her my story and that I wanted to read as much as I could on black history and black literature, as so little of it was taught in school. She suggested some books. I fell in love with the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and yes, James Weldon Johnson.
I read everything I could find. I asked my pastor if I could share at church what I had learned about our people. He was delighted. He suggested a Sunday evening in March and asked for a photo for the church bulletin.
A few days later I was walking to the school where I was substitute teaching when I saw in a bookstore window a beautifully designed, professionally printed poster with my face beaming from it.
“Joanna Featherstone, renowned actress with Trinity Square Repertory Theater, will premiere her one-woman show of African-American poetry and stories on Sunday, March 21, at 7 P.M., at Ebenezer Baptist Church.”
Oh my goodness! Apparently my pastor had decided to make this an event—without discussing it with me. The posters were up all around town. I couldn’t back out now.
I got a call from Trinity Rep, asking if reservations were necessary. The director and several of my former cast mates wanted to come. “We didn’t know you had a one-woman show,” they said. Neither did I!
I frantically shaped the material into some kind of show. I asked the choir to sing some numbers between the poems and stories I performed. At least I wouldn’t be up there alone. I rehearsed and rehearsed.
All too soon it was the night of the show. Before I walked out on the stage, I whispered, God, go before me and prepare the way. The church was packed. The congregation was dressed to the nines. The actors from Trinity Rep were standing in back.
I entered in a flowing black gown, high heels, pearl earrings and bracelet, with ruby-red lipstick and nails. The show was on!
I performed the poems and stories I’d chosen, bringing them to life and feeling more alive than ever myself. Afterward I took a bow to overwhelming applause and amens. The pastor’s wife presented me with a bouquet of red roses. I could not have imagined a more glorious opening night.
My one-woman show, “Not Without Laughter” (named for Langston Hughes’s first novel), served me well for the next 40 years. I performed all over the world. Acting not only gave me fulfillment, it also provided a living, paid for my mama’s house and my daughter’s college.
How does a dream thrive? When you hold fast to it and trust that God (and sometimes, an enterprising pastor) will find a purpose for it.
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