Back in the fifties, I was one of the few African-Americans at DeLaSalle Academy, A Catholic boys high school on the Southside of Chicago. One day our English teacher assigned us to present to the class either a poem or a Shakespearian monologue. I chose the dagger speech from MacBeth. We reading the play; it seemed like the path of least resistance.
After memorizing it, for practice I started reciting it for my Mother’s friends when they came over to play bid whist. Shakespeare was as about as familiar to them as Sanskrit. But they enjoyed seeing me “strut and frut” my time on the stage. For years afterwards, at every family gathering, Mom would implore me to “do that Shakespeare thing.”
In fact I would perform “that Shakespeare thing” for anyone who would listen except, of course, my schoolmates. I didn’t see them out of school. They were for the most part Irish, Italian, and Eastern European kids from the West Side. In deeply divided Chicago, we didn’t have a whole lot in common except a fanatical love of the White Sox baseball team. They were being groomed to follow in their father’s footsteps in the trade unions, or the professions, or politics (a classmate followed his father and became Mayor of the city). The paths of the white DeLaSalle kids led through colleges like Notre Dame, Loyola or DePaul.
My life was different. The only reason I was there in the first place was that my mentor and surrogate father, Fr. Clements had snatched me off the streets. It was go to DeLaSalle or go to jail. eventually. Back in the neighborhood my best friend had already taken his second bust for stealing cars. Another had quit school to join the army. A third had quit to take care of his tuberculosis infected mother. A couple of guys from that old gang of mine were dead having run into a bigger and badder gang called the Blackstone Rangers. At least four girls had dropped out because they were pregnant.
When the day finally came for presentations, one by one my classmates got up to mumble various versions of Kilmer, Frost and Sandburg. They were greeted by predictable muffled laughter and occasional cat-calls. I remember one guy, an offensive tackle on the school’s championship football team, coerced the requisite silence by threatening, “if youse don’t shut your traps, I’ll pop your heads like I done that practice dummy.” But, even his threats couldn’t hold back the snickers when he couldn’t remember the fifth line of Stopping by the Woods on A Snowy Evening. So he just repeated the first four lines – twice.
I was the last one called on to recite. As I began my well rehearsed monologue, I punctuated it with large ( but, I thought, very dramatic) gesticulations and hysterical (but, I thought appropriately intense) utterances. The class got quiet, very quiet. I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a few puzzled glances which I was sure meant, “ What the hell is this crazy colored kid doing?” I was struck with terror but I continued…faster.
At one point I had rehearsed a particularly gut wrenching moan. For one of Mom’s friends the technique had actually brought tears. I had no idea what these guys would do. More out of fear than art – I closed my eyes and moaned. From the back of the room I heard gasps. Then I knew. They were listening. I had them, by God; I had them.
Then there was a miracle (it was a Catholic School after all). Toward the end of the monologue at the point when MacBeth hears a bell rung offstage by his wife, the school bell rang right on cue! Miracle two – nobody moved. They sat still and listened. This in a School where I had witnessed an entire gym get up and leave when a dismissal bell inadvertently went off during a bishop’s speech. When I finished the room burst into applause. It grew into a standing ovation when they remembered that the bell had already rung.
As everyone left the room, tears which had before only served to lubricate my nervousness began to flow like water pouring from a busted tenement faucet. I cried tears of joy, tears of relief and even tears of regret that it was all over. For those moments time had seemed suspended. I felt connected to each every person in that room and through them to every person in the universe. It would be years before I would have the opportunity to climb up on a stage again. But, in those moments an actor was born.