Give me somebody to dance for
Give me somebody to show
Let me wake up in the morning to find
I have somewhere exciting to go.
To have something that I can believe in,
To have someone to be.
Edward Kleban,
A Chorus Line

The Music and the Mirror
Scenes from a Life Onstage

by Danny Kodmur

 

Prologue: Heredity and Environment

A doctor tells my parents I have cerebral palsy. He tells them I might not ever walk, that I might end up with severe cognitive impairments, and that I would certainly be horrendously nearsighted. The first two predictions are bogus, but then they were based on guesswork and the cautious blindered pessimism of the medical profession, so no wonder. The last prediction, surprisingly, turns out to be accurate.

There I am in preschool, already with thick glasses, already with my nose buried in an endless succession of books. At this point, I'm being carried to doctors, to therapy, everywhere, and I demand that my books follow me wherever I am being taken.

I develop the habit of reading during my toilet training, but the written word is not my only companion in that room with the cold white tile floor. I am also listening to music. In later years, my parents called this my "music to tinkle by" phase, remembering it mostly as filled with folk songs and Disney music. But I remember it differently. I remember Barbra.

Yes, folks, cliché time. I was toilet-trained by Barbra Joan Streisand of Brooklyn, though without her knowledge or consent. She was singing these great songs about being a kid, and I sang along. I had no way of knowing that these pieces were part of a Leonard Bernstein song cycle, but it didn't matter. I'd caught the bug.

I think my mom and my aunt had been stagestruck since long before I was born. Their father took them to see shows, and they bought albums, albums I memorized and sang along with. Sometimes I thought I'd caught my mom singing along too, but she always did so unobtrusively.

Act One: Broadway on Wheels, with Lipstick

When I started Special Ed school, I knew it was an adventure. More people, more disabilities, more colors, more languages than I'd ever encountered before, all were here at this very special place. The albums I loved, the singing and performing I so enjoyed, these things were an at-home thing, nothing to do with school, or so I thought.

Then two marvelous teachers, grounded in the rich traditions of black literature, music, and theater, began to transform my life. My main teacher read to us, performed for us, made us perform for each other in class. And the music teacher had an amazing insight. If you have disabled kids, from wildly disparate backgrounds, many with speech difficulties, shyness, and a sense of invisibility, the key to galvanizing them is music, theater, performance.

So we saw shows. Lots of them. We saw live musicals, children's Shakespeare, even simplified versions of operas like "Cinderella" and "The Barber of Seville." Typical insensitive adults might have seen these activities as passive cultural enrichment at best, and at worst some rare fun for those poor crippled kids; my two teachers proved their worth by taking the immense next step, getting us out of the audience and onto the stage.

The music teacher's sister, who had been a Broadway dancer, came and demonstrated some routines when we performed excerpts from two black musicals. Her daughter had just starred in a high-school production of "Bye Bye Birdie," so she decided we would do songs from the show. At this time I was about eight or nine, with a fairly decent high voice. I loved Dick Van Dyke from "Mary Poppins," and I was excited to be singing his song, "Put on a Happy Face." As we staged it, I was giving a pep-talk to another guy onstage, urging him to cheer up. I guess you could say this was the first-ever test of my acting ability, since the guy and I didn't get along that well, and we were rivals, at least in my mind, for the affections of a girl in our class. I came up with the idea of smacking him while singing that he should "slap on a happy grin." I did give him a quick slap on the cheek, and I remember enjoying it, perhaps too much.

Sweet as it may have been, my petty revenge was not even close to the highlight of the evening. In "Bye Bye Birdie," the main character, Kim, sings an ode to physical and sexual maturity called "How Lovely to Be a Woman;" someone, not me, got the bright idea of putting me up on stage, wheelchair and all, covered in a large art smock. The concept was I'd start singing the song, take off the smock, and behold, I'd be in a dress, still singing, while others adorned my costume with jewelry and my face with rouge and lipstick. What could I do? This was "Bye Bye Birdie," or as close to it as a kid in a chair was probably ever going to get, so I said Yes, I'd do it. What's a dress and pearls between friends?

Now I know that writers like Paul Rudnick and Terrence McNally have mined gold from the connection between a love of musical theater and an evolving gay identity, but I'm not sure those paradigms apply to me quite so baldly. When my gay friends hear I appeared in drag doing showtunes before I even learned how to walk, they think they've found an Aha! moment, the key to my life, the point at which my sexual destiny was fixed in concrete forever. Not so fast, I say, not so fast.

Act Two: Masks of Tragedy, Comedy and Puberty

Flash forward a few years. No longer directly nurtured by black culture, nor surrounded by a mosaic of people and disabilities, I found myself in Hollywood. I had not been discovered, nor signed to a studio contract; I'd merely entered junior high school.

Two years earlier, I'd been mainstreamed, making the leap to regular school at the start of fifth grade. Though my Special Ed school had featured a "reverse mainstreamed" classroom full of able-bodied kids, fifth grade was my first full exposure to the outside able-bodied world, and I learned two lessons very quickly:

This was my neighborhood school, and I already knew a bunch of people through my sister, who'd gone there for years, so it wasn't as though I was starting from scratch socially, but it was hard; I'd gone from being one disabled kid among many to being The Disabled Kid, and while I was finally joining a demographic majority by going to a school with a large white population, this would have made me feel more comfortable only if being in a largely-black environment had been a problem in the first place. It hadn't been, so seeing kids whose skin was like mine did not boost my confidence. Our skin may have been the same, but our bodies and experiences were different.

To make up for my social awkwardness, I began a pattern I would follow for years afterward. I sought out alternate arenas of recognition, like performing, but with a difference. In regular school, since the aim of performance was no longer therapeutic, I began coming into contact with people who had genuine talent, and who performed because they loved it and wanted to spend their lives onstage.

I had few illusions about how my talent stacked up against those kids; I knew I was good, and worked hard, but I knew many of them were better than me, even way back then in fifth grade. Wanting to encourage me, my sixth grade teacher, a devout Christian woman who knew of my interest in theater, gave me a copy of Ethel Merman's autobiography. (Another Aha, you say? Perhaps, but my teacher's interest was motivated more by Merman's devotion to faith and her persistence than by her iconic status in the theater.)

Even though I still loved to sing and act, I decided to branch out, finding another stage: student government. Now, as an adult, I recognize the minor nature of student government in elementary school, but at the time I thought it was a great way to satisfy both my thirst for performance and the Jackie Robinson-like mission on which I had been sent.

In junior high, I was finally in school with a cluster of able-bodied kids I'd known for a while, so I was a bit more comfortable socially, but I was still compensating like mad, with Student Council, and with drama class. In that classroom, I found another magical teacher, and he and I connected on a multitude of levels. I certainly was not his most talented student, but our relationship had other dimensions.

He had come to Hollywood from the Midwest to be an actor, and he had known many of the young actors who were in the orbit of local playhouses and movie studios. He would tell instructive anecdotes about the people he had worked with in younger days, and most of the time, I was the only kid who knew the names he was mentioning. At these times, I felt like our conversations were private, and that there were no other students in the room. On occasions when that was literally true, he would tell me more stories, mostly because he loved reducing me to a maniacally laughing tub of jelly. My favorite bit of his involved re-enacting a scene from "Gone With the Wind," where he would switch in a second from imperious Scarlett to frazzled Prissy and back again. Did I know at the time this was vintage campiness, beloved of certain men of a certain age? No, but I laughed anyway.

He was impressed with how much I knew and remembered, with what he called my "referent background." When the time came for us to do shows, we did plays and musical revues that he had conceived and written. They were his great moment as a producer, and like a true impresario, he created performing space for me, a kid whom vaudeville types might have called the ultimate specialty act.

The fall show during ninth grade was a mildly farcical murder mystery, a type much seen on Broadway in the Forties and Fifties. I was given a fun part, of a mildly dotty detective; I don't know whether my teacher was thinking of Raymond Burr playing Robert Ironside as he cast me, but I didn't mind, at least not at first; then things started to bother me.

As I said, I had few illusions about my capabilities. I didn't see myself as a current or future great actor, and I was already a devoted groupie of those students whose talents were special. When they showed me up as being ordinary by comparison, I was not bothered by it, but I had what you might call a gender issue. See, the women in our show were extraordinary, funny, and chilling, and heartbreaking depending on the minute, but the guys were a different story. They were just not comfortable onstage, and seeing them squirm and screw up got me frustrated.

There was no way I could be a leading male character, not physically, not logistically, not visually, and not in the minds of the audience. I was OK with that, provided that I had a good part, and provided that the other guys were doing a decent job. They weren't, and I felt trapped, knowing that if I had not been disabled, I could have played their parts, and well, too.

In retrospect I know now that I had been given a much more interesting part, that the wheelchair and my delivery made me stand out on stage. I probably got more attention in the small good role than I might have gotten in the major bland one, but this didn't get through my skull at the time.

In the spring musical, I was given a fair amount to do. I had been performing Tom Lehrer songs in class for two years, and my teacher thought it would be great for me to do one in the show. I did, and it went OK, as did another number I was in, but I still felt vaguely unsatisfied. Maybe this was because we were getting ready to graduate; all my friends would be going off to the neighborhood high school, the one with the great reputation for performing arts. The one with . . . lots of stairs. I would be going off to a new high school, one not far away, but where I would not know anybody. So we were dispersing, and I knew the talented kids in the shows with me would only get better in high school, while I was not even sure I would do drama at all, given that no teacher in the world was ever going to be as in sync with me as this special man had been.

The time came for our final projects, what our teacher called Senior Showcase, our chance to pick scenes, direct ourselves, and perform, just before graduation. Other kids were busily combing through the usual stuff—Neil Simon, Anne Frank, Helen Keller—when my inspiration hit. I had found the perfect role, a metaphor for my disability, my social and romantic isolation, and even my impending separation from everyone I had grown up with. I would be Cyrano, in "Cyrano de Bergerac." I would confess love to a beautiful and transcendent woman. And I would die.

We had no real makeup resources available, but I told my teacher a putty nose would be redundant; Cyrano may have had his disability, but I had one of my own already, thanks. I decided to perform on crutches, mostly so that one crutch could be a stand-in for my sword, but also I think because I wanted to be seen nakedly as me, disabled, rather than camouflaged in something cute and gimmicky like a wheelchair.

I began planning for my Senior Showcase, but Cyrano needed his Roxanne. Conveniently at the time, I was infatuated with someone who was not choosing to acknowledge my existence, so in a moment of sledgehammer subtlety, I asked her to be my scene partner. Thank God, she said No, which was a blessing on two levels, since her refusal both killed my crush once and for all, and made me look elsewhere for my Roxanne.

With the help of my teacher, I found two terrific actresses in my class and settled on one. I had not been in love with her at any point, but rehearsing with her convinced me that I should have been, if I'd had half a brain in my head. Our chemistry onstage was just right, a perfect balance of warmth, humor, fire, and sadness.

We did an abridged version of the fifth act, where the dying Cyrano finally confesses his love, and Roxanne realizes that the man she had thought she loved had been a mere vessel for the passions of another. It was corny, it was melodramatic, but it worked, because we played the hell out of it; my Roxanne performed superbly because she was incapable of doing anything less: I gave the best performance of my life because in the deepest sense I was not acting. I was claiming the powerful charismatic person inside Cyrano's romantic martyrdom. Critics claim that Rostand is cheap slick nineteenth-century cornball melodrama, but as we did it, and alongside Neil Simon, it felt like "Romeo and Juliet."

As I died onstage, displaying my white plume of romantic heroism, mon panache, I thought I was saying goodbye to a life onstage, going out with a special flourish. Things didn't turn out that way. There would be other shows, other audiences, but many of the same challenges. More on those next time. For now, reaching forward from the deepest darkest recesses of adolescence, Cyrano salutes you, and bids you farewell.

©2002 Danny Kodmur

First of two parts

.

DANNY KODMUR is a frequent contributor to BENT.
You can reach him for comments, marriage proposals, and audition offers at dkodmur@comcast.net.

 

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2002