I finished a run of performances a couple of weeks ago as part of an ensemble cast, gifted with three standing ovations over three nights. It’s an actor’s dream, the audience making that commitment, when so many (usually) want to reach for their car keys and start heading home.
It’s not as common as you might think, if all you see are Hollywood award shows or a State of the Union address. I’ve done dozens of shows, hundreds of performances over four decades. A charitable assessment might produce thirty or so times that the crowd rose to their feet in enthusiastic acclaim. Each one is special, but there was a time when I got one I didn’t want.
Home for a few weeks after a summer traveling with a side show (I was playing Mark Twain, performing “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” before a frog-jumping contest), my mother had an idea for a quick one-and-done on stage in front of an admiring crowd. I said yes immediately, not giving it another thought.
I should remind you, if you haven’t heard it before, that my mother is a retired minister. Before she heeded the call to preach, she was already deeply involved in her church, the one I was raised in. It is a Pentecostal sect, established in the first five years of the last century. They are, by and large, literalists about the King James Version of the Bible. They believe in the Immaculate Creation, the Resurrection of the Saints at the Rapture and speaking in tongues.
I spent years watching fire-and-brimstone evangelists prowl the edge of the altar, speaking the truth as they understood it, telling the world stories of sin and salvation. From my childhood, there were those who prophesied that I would, one day, be a minister of the Gospel. That was not to be. Watching some of them was an education in drama, while others offered a primer for hypocrisy. I chose drama.
The deal my Mom was offering was to portray a Mexican common man, thrilled to travel three thousand miles to collect a bike. Yeah, I know, it sounds ridiculous. But her intentions were pure. She was helping a woman gifted with excellent fundraising ability but with (near) no audience skills. The two of them wanted to present a dramatization of a Hispanic coming all the way from his remote village to accept a couple of bicycles their fundraisers had paid for. The fundraising was real…the acceptance was the show. They presented the idea to me and it wasn’t good enough. I asked them, “What if I replied to your questions in Spanish?” Canary feathers fluttered from their mouths, as they enthusiastically put me in touch with a minister from West Detroit who was fluent.
We wrote out my answers to the questions and offered them to our “translator”, who responded into a tape recorder. From there, I wrote and memorized what he had said phonetically. It wound up being a lot more work than I had assumed it would be, but I hoped the end product would be worth it. It was a quick five-minute piece. I was planning on being in and out quickly, so I brought my girlfriend with me. She was used to me being in and out quickly.
She waited backstage while I prepared to go out and be the faux recipient. I was dressed like a fruit picker, possibly a fruit picker’s foreman, in khaki slacks and shirt, straw hat and black work boots. When I was introduced, I walked out working the brim of the hat in my hands, as if I’d never seen so many people before, or certainly, not that many staring right at me.
The director of the fundraiser insisted on asking the questions, though she was uncomfortable in front of a microphone. Her queries were choppy, forced, uneven. All I had to do was look at my translator and wait for him to re-pose the question in Spanish. Though I understood nothing he said, I knew which question was coming and I would answer in Spanish. He would then relay my response to the microphone, telling the congregation how much the bicycles would mean to the community and detailing the things it would allow the villagers to accomplish. There weren’t more than four or five questions, but we handled them well. We all stayed “in character” and the segment wound down without incident.
The next part was my fault. After they were so excited about me doing my part in Spanish, I forwarded the idea that maybe my character should give a short speech…in broken English. When my translator left the stage, I told the director, “I…have words,” waving a sheet of paper in front of me. I was now going to impersonate a Mexican reading a couple of paragraphs written phonetically in English. The podium was cleared and I stepped toward it. I think I may have bumped the microphone with my nose, pretending complete ignorance of how such things were done. The blue-eyed Mexican took a deep breath and began.
“Good morning, Shursh of Goad…of Prop-a-see…” I said, butchering the pronunciation of ‘Church of God of Prophecy’. That may have been what did it. For the next minute and a half, while this man they saw as a humble laborer attempted to thank them for their largesse, you could have heard a pin drop in an auditorium that would hold fifteen hundred people and was nearly full. By the time I had thanked them, from the ‘bootom of my heert’, the hook was set.
I stepped back from the podium and it began. They roared their approval, standing in sections, until every person in the auditorium was on their feet. I cut my eyes to the right to see the director and my mother…freaked out. They had assumed that everyone knew it was a put-on, a representation of what it might’ve been like if…again…a guy could travel three thousand miles to pick up a couple of bikes. My mother told me later, “If they had started speaking in tongues, I would’ve died.”
You see, if you are a student of the Bible, the Holy Ghost (or Spirit) is not to be mocked. If the congregation had begun speaking in that unknown language that originated in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost, that would be a product of a false spirit and undoubtedly bogus. Thankfully, that did not occur. The applause abated, the audience sat down, and they returned to business as usual.
I stepped out of the lights and met my redheaded, green-eyed girlfriend standing in the wings. “Nice going, Senor,” she said, moving in for a kiss that was decidedly un-sisterly. A stagehand watched us, puzzled. As we moved to the exit, I thought I was busted. He stepped in front of us and extended his hand, as if to stop us.
Then he offered his hand in greeting, shaking mine. He said, in slow, clear English, “I hope you enjoyed your visit to the U.S. God bless you.” At that point, he pushed the door open as I murmured thanks behind me. We were off. The speed limit was seventy, so she did seventy-eight, one hand on the steering wheel and one hand in my hair, my head in her lap.
There was no blockade at the city limits; my mother let the proverbial cat out of the bag at first opportunity, admitting, yes, it was a put-on. ‘Dramatization’ would have been my preference, but whatever. No one held it against her, or me. I heard later that when they passed the plates, it was one of the best mission offerings they ever had.
It’s strange, but I don’t think I’ve been on a bike since.