I Sing Because I’m Happy: On Hannah, Mary, and Ethel

Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10

I’m not a native of YS. The first decade of my life was spent growing up elsewhere. Dad started working at Antioch College when I was 6 or 7, so I came to my future home around the time I was forming memories that would prove to withstand the years and consequences of perhaps unwise decision made in my 20s. And I was not impressed. It was funky. Kinda dirty. Frankly, though, it was the fact that the family of five I had known was becoming a family of 2, at least in terms of living arrangements. Mom stayed in Cincy so that Stephen could finish up his final year at Walnut Hills High School. Sis was at Purdue. So I was going though a pretty huge change for a kid of 10. Dad knew it, too. He had a plan.

Until I made some of those questionable life choices referenced above, I had a nearly eidetic memory, at least in certain areas. I could remember and recognize melodies within three of four notes, like the bygone days of Name that Tune; I could remember actors and actresses and their filmography; albums and albums of lyrics. I could close my eyes and see pages of course notes, replete with doodles in the margins. To be sure, I was not Sheldon Cooper. My memory was less photographic and more steel trap. I recognized melodies and lyrics because I spent hours sitting in front of the record player. TV was restricted in the house. Books and music were not.

My parents hooked me up with a pretty rad childhood, yo.

Dad asked me about how I was able to memorize so many lyrics; I shrugged and said something like, “I just decide I want to know them, so I sit there until I do.” This was not an innocent or aimless question for Dad, though; he had in his mind something that would prove to dramatically change my life.* I walked through the doors of Center State** for the first time, a place that would come to shape and define so much of me, and I auditioned for an Antioch College production of Member of the Wedding.

Carson McCullers‘ mistressful play is perhaps best known for the film version starring the captivating  Julie Harris, the ephemeral Brandon DeWilde, and the incomparable Ethel Waters. The story is one of transitions, of shifting times and confusion; of racial prejudice and violence; of love formed at the fulcrum. It is a story that sadly is still prescient and timely today as it was in the 1950s. A plot summary will not do it justice. All I can say is, see the film.

Seriously. Make this a priority. 

I was cast as one in what is essentially a three-person show. To be sure, there are other actors and characters other than John Henry West, Frankie, and Bernice (pronounced as “bear-niece” when you’re doing the accent right). But we were onstage nearly constantly, and the show is very physical. It requires timing and awareness, trust and dedication. I did art for the first time in that show. Real art, you know. That kind that helps you tap into the pulse of why the Greeks got this whole things started. It was also during this time that I met Big Homie–all my YS peeps know who I’m talking about–because he and my man Justin who is doing the branding for the BCPYS were graduating middle school. His sister was starring as Berniece. I still have a picture of the two of us from the show that hangs in my bedroom. 

This was the first sustained time I had ever spent with persons of color. Over half of the cast and crew was non-white; I was one of very few white males, and I was a boy. And the content of the show is all about race relations, and I heard the heated discussions that took place in the green room and out back during cigarette breaks. Connecting the play to what was happening then. Gangsta rap was just about to explode into white America. I was gettin’ woke.

This was the same time that James Farmer came to visit Antioch; read about some of that here. Tl;dr: the great man had a heart attack, but still reached out to me in an act of compassion. My understanding and consciousness around race was being expanded by two things: art and Yellow Springs. So when people ask me why I am so tenacious and committed to issues of race I sometimes don’t know what to say, at least not as a sound byte. I think that’s ultimately why I started the Beloved Community Project.

Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words. 

Because like Hannah and Mary teach us, sometimes you just gotta sing. Especially those songs that come from having started in a place of deep pain. Hannah knows. Before there is the Delta Blues there is Hannah. She sings to God about being bereft. Barren. In a society that largely values women by their ability to produce sons she has no standing. She feels her sense of purpose and place slipping from her grasp. She is desperate. She begins in confusion and end ups in a place of joy. Of light. Of freedom. If only for the moment. Oh, we pray for such moments. When we feel connected to God, that we have glimpsed completeness. But notice that Hannah has not forgotten where she started. Her song is about hanging on in hope as much as it is about the glory of God delivering her the fruits of her prayer. The song points us toward redemption and transformation but gives no promise of time. No guarantee of delivery method.

I am beginning to see everything in terms of community. It is at the heart of The Project. We all need a place where we can bring the whole self, or at least as much as the self as we can muster in the moment. The BCP (yeah you know me!) is about all the songs we sing in our lives. The ones out of pain and the ones out of gratitude. All the ones that come through tears. Are the ones that are sung with smiles. All the songs we need for the journey.

I’ll leave you with this. At the end of act one of Members, Frankie, John Henry, and Bernice are sitting in a rocking chair and John Henry begins to sing. Now, people tell me today that I have a good voice. I…yeah. I have a love/hate relationship with my voice. I have literally spent thousands of hours teaching myself pitch, control, tone, and everything else because, frankly, I was totally tone deaf when I started. I have a pretty deep voice now, and it is big. Loud. I know my instrument; I can get you there and bring the people along. But not singing. I still pretty much hate my singing voice. I am no Martin Bakari, but like my dear friend I don’t need a microphone to get to the people in the back.

That’s now. I was 10 years old then, though. The poor woman who was trying to teach me finally asked, “Hon, do you think maybe just Bernice and Frankie sing it?” I looked at her and I said, “I don’t think it is about hitting the right notes; it’s about feeling the song. She blinked and responded, “It’s about hitting the notes.” I burst into tears. Part of it was hurt feelings and pride, but most of us it was sense that the art would suffer. The act must end with John Henry starting, and the three of them singing in harmony.

So I practiced. And practiced. And practiced. Nothing. Finally, the director–the incomparable Denny Partridge–took me out back. A space where Directors did some of their most magical work. She asked, “Aaron, what is the song about?” I started reciting the lyrics. She shook her head. “Aaron, what is the song about.” I thought about it. I thought about no longer having the full family under one roof anymore or ever again. I thought about how Yellow Springs was becoming my home and I was getting to learn so much about people of a different race than me. “It’s about feeling safe even when things are tough,” I said. Slowly. Twice. First as a question. Then as a statement.

We nailed the song on opening night and every night of the run.

*You’ll look back on that sentence and realize it is a proleptic pun.
**That is a completely different post for a different time, but no worries; it will come.

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