Friday, December 6, 2013

Spirit lighting up the sky


In 1994, I landed my first professional acting job. I was able to join Equity, the union for theatre actors and was thrilled beyond belief. I was set to play the role of Isabelle Dyson in Athol Fugard's complex and moving drama "My Children! My Africa!" at the South Jersey Regional Theatre. When I arrived, I  was introduced to my fellow actors - Maduka Steady, who is from Sierra Leone and Seth Sibanda, who is from South Africa, where the play is set. It sounds odd to say it now but at that young age, despite being surrounded by African-Americans in New York City, I had never actually met anyone from Africa before.

We attacked the rehearsal process with vigor. The days were long but incredibly rewarding. It was Maduka's first stage production as well (although he had previously appeared in the film "Lorenzo's Oil") and we both had much to prove. A friendly sparring arose, which was perfect as it was also the basis of the friendship that develops between our characters, both 18 year-olds - Isabelle, who is from a wealthy white family and Thami, an honors student from "the location," a black township. Each is struggling to find their place within the rule of apartheid and are further linked by the guidance of Thami's professor, Mr. M. Mr. M has pushed Thami hard and has the highest of hopes for the change that he can bring. He is a harbinger. The three hour play unfolds with the crackle of electricity in the air and that same tension was most certainly present in 1994.


As is common in many small American regional theaters, the actors were put up together in a house. I was given the main bedroom, being the only woman in the production, while Maduka and Seth shared a room upstairs. In the evenings, we would eat together and share stories. I would often try to continue speaking in Isabelle's accent in order to master the difficult timber. Each time that I did, I would eventually stop and ask Seth how I was doing. His response was usually the same: "Very good for a  South African that was raised in Ireland and spent a considerable amount of time in Japan." We laughed so hard.


One morning when the show was already up and running, I was awoken by the sound of the television in the living room. Seth and Maduka were watching in silence. I tried to understand what I was seeing on the screen. Finally, Seth spoke, "He has won." It was official, Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress had won the elections. Apartheid would end. I remember watching Seth stand there, a gentle man but strong as a mountain. We didn't shout with joy or dance in celebration, there was too much history behind this moment. 


Of course, it was with great pride that we finished the run of the play, including performing as a benefit for Amnesty International. One evening after the curtain had fallen, I was about to head back to the house, tired after an especially bracing show. The stage manager called out to me, "Heather, there is someone waiting for you out front." I walked towards the young woman standing by the foot of the stage with trepidation. "Hello?" She turned to me and I could see that her eyes were shiny with emotion. "Um...hi...um...this might sound odd but...I just wanted to tell you something...that your performance...in this play...well, it changed my life...the way I have thought about things. I wanted to thank you for that." It was very brave of her to say and I thanked her in return. That comment - along with the exceptional experience of having participated in such an important play at such an important time - ended up changing me forever as well.


This morning, December 6th 2013, I pulled down my old script of "My Children! My Africa!" from a spot high on the top shelf of the bookcase. I had learned of Nelson Mandela's passing the night before. I was thinking to Isabelle's soliloquy that closes the play:

"...You gave me a little lecture once about wasted lives...how much of it you'd seen, how much you hated it, how much you didn't want it to happen to Thami and me. I sort of understood what you meant at the time. Now, I most certainly do. Your death has seen to that.
My promise to you is that I am going to try as hard as I can, in every way that I can, to see that it doesn't happen to me. I am going to try my best to make my life useful in the way yours was. I want you to be proud of me. After all, I am one of your children you know. You did welcome me to your family. The future is still ours, Mr. M."


Nelson Mandela made the world his family and made it a better place for us all.

Thank you, Mr. Mandela for proving the power of Hope.
May your spirit continue to shine bright in the sky.



35 comments:

  1. What a remarkable, personal tribute to an extraordinary man. Shiny eyes here, too, Heather.

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  2. What a beautiful memory, Heather. Thanks for sharing it with us. Mandela may be gone, but I'd like to think that his spirit lives on in all of us who try every day to always act with love not hate as we go through the routines of our lives. Very shiny eyes here. XO

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  3. Thank you. Shiny eyes here, too. xo

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  4. Wonderful, Heather... and how beautiful to have such a personal memory... xv

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  5. Beautifully written causing tears. Thank you

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  6. I'm with Lois. This post made my spirit soar, H.

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  7. Such an eloquent,moving tribute...and what a wonderful memory to have and to hold. Thank you for sharing it here. T

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  8. 1994 I was 24 and I was in New York! (which I am usually not) I could have seen the play. I was there for Renée Greens Opening " Taste Venue" at Pat Hearn Gallery. It was by her that I got first aquainted with books like "Native Son" and " "Incidents in the live of a slavegirl". I still have an edition of her work " This was now then" here on the wall.
    But actively being involved in a play like that must have been something... ( I'm lookin for the word) big, responsible, a statment.
    The life and work of Mandela is beyond my abilitiy of imagination. How can a human being survive and overcome such traumas as he did? Let's only hope some of his dreams may come true.

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  10. Heather, this was a beautiful tribute. Thank you.

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  11. Heather, as I read you post, I literally had shivers go down my spine. Thank you for your respectful tribute and relating your own personal story. It made me a bit misty eyed. It was a poignant tribute to a man who was able to forgive and move forward.
    Deborah from Melbourne.

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  12. Perfect music choice to accompany your words, Heather. Apartheid and Mandela have been defining forces on the world stage and in our individual lives for decades.New Zealand's relationship with apartheid and sport certainly defined New Zealand and its politics. How glad I am that Mandela, with his humanity and his forgiveness, triumphed. He was not a saint, as he himself admitted, which somehow says to me that we all have the power to choose to be a force for good, to be like him, as best we can.

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  13. How very fortunate you were and what a lovely tribute to an amazing man! I still have tears in my eyes - I don't know you were able to deliver that final soliloquy. You impress me every time I read your blog!

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  14. BEAAUTIFUL HEATHER ………JUST BEAUTIFUL.
    And to see that young photo of YOU!You still look the same……….
    I was at the hospital waiting for a CT scan when I saw the news on the TV………..it brought tears to my eyes.I am fine just a sinus clog!But what really surprised me was how the waiting room was not moved……….they looked then looked away……..I thought that was so sad.Perhaps, their minds were elsewhere.I have been to South Africa twice now……once as a student; then five years ago for a funeral.Nice people those SOUTH AFRICANs……so sorry for their loss.

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  16. Whoa!! Shiny eyes AND shiny cheeks - what a beautiful tribute; this is up there as one of my favorite things that you've written. I remember you doing that play (if only your audience knew what an amazing actress you are!); I didn't know the impact it had and it relates so beautiful as a tribute to Nelson Mandela. Plus I LOVE the pictures, showing the joie de vivre that we see in your posts today. Beautiful (just like you)!

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  17. Beautiful memory for you....Amazing man.....amazing life.

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  19. Thank you for this beautiful post! x Sharon

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  20. Heather it would be fair to tell me why you removed my comment. There was nothing wrong I have said and everything was in honor to Nelson Mandela. Thank you

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    1. I didn't remove it, Mumbai. It actually says that you did! The only blog comments I ever remove are spam and when I do it is marked "this comment has been removed by a blog administrator" (that is me) but when someone that has written a comment removes it, it is marked "this comment has been removed by the author"--so I don't know what happened, perhaps a blip in blogger but no offense was meant nor would be. :)

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    2. Thank you for your reply and explain the possible case, Heather. It's really mysterious because I didn't remove my comment. Have a nice day.

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    3. It's a mystery! Have a great day too.

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  21. Tell me another one, mama! I love your stories from when you were young. Especially love this one, Heather. xx

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  22. What a beautiful post. I lived in southern Africa for almost a decade and the accent is like home to me, particularly this week. I just loved your description of speaking in Isabelle's accent!

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    1. Welcome, Gillian! Lovely to have you here. And oh my, I loved working in accents but the South African was such a challenge, so nuanced. And how amazing that you lived in Southern Africa for nearly ten years?? You must have many stories...

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  23. Outstanding tribute, Heather! Thanks for sharing your memorable experience with us!
    Love, Julia

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  24. Heather...I hung on every word, such an amazing story and wonderful memories for you. What a rich life you have lived...acting in addition to writing, the creative spirit flows freely. I am sure Mr. Mandela would have appreciated your touching tribute...just as we have. xx

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