Dee was a firecracker, full of attitude and energy. She had a smile that lit up the room and the self-confident swagger of a seasoned stage professional. We were eating from the palm of her hand the moment she took the stage. There was no question that Dee would play the part of Addaperle, the good witch of Munchkinland, in The Wiz. She had aced the audition.
Dee was ten years old.
The “audition” was for the inaugural year of a kids’ summer program in an economically challenged neighborhood of a small northeastern city. We, a tiny band of do-gooders, were trying to start a program to engage the kids in the neighborhood around the small community theatre. Having begun its life as a firehouse, it had been renovated into a scrappy little performance space many years before. The little building was sweltering in July. The only reason the community theatre leadership didn’t program it in the summer was because the facility was pretty near uninhabitable. I was months out of college with a theatre degree I had no understanding of how to use. I’d avoided working with children, viewing them as a slippery slope to a teaching job and the loss of my own Broadway dreams – but I hadn’t landed a summer stock job, and I figured this might lead to some “connections.” Doing any show was better than sitting at home all summer. I had no idea what I was doing.
The crowd of kids who showed up for auditions that summer was not quite what we expected. Amongst the neighborhood kids who we’d worked hard for weeks to engage were kids from the suburbs and more affluent communities. There weren’t enough opportunities for them to do theatre, so they had trucked – some nearly an hour – to auditions. The resulting cast- a mix of kids from widely divergent backgrounds, some with lots of performance experience, others with none- became our first year’s company.
Dee came from a rough neighborhood. She showed up to rehearsal on her own, often with a younger sibling or cousin in tow that she had been left to care for that day. It was clear that the bags of chips and candy she carried from the corner store were often the only meals she would have. She had outgrown the faded clothes she wore, and they clung to her already maturing curves, giving the impression of a much older child. Although I spoke to her on the phone, I never met her mother, or any adult who took responsibility for Dee. She was very much on her own. Mary was one of our “imported” kids, chauffeured to rehearsal each night by her doting mother. Her narrow frame was usually contained inside a baggy camp t-shirt and khaki shorts. Mousy and shy among a sometimes rowdy group of attention-seekers, she often went unnoticed. She had studied ballet since she was old enough to walk and although she could do all the steps with technical precision, she did not shine. There was nothing compelling in watching her perform. Another child might have felt that her ballet pedigree entitled her to a featured role, but Mary quietly embraced her part in the chorus, delicately pointing her toes and pirouetting when called upon. She had a lovely smile but barely spoke, patiently awaiting her next instruction.
Rehearsals began with a cyclone of activity. The excitement was palpable. Fans whirred and kids dripped sweat as they rehearsed in every available space in that little theatre – the kitchen, the hallway, and when it got too hot, the sidewalk alongside the building. Laughter was everywhere as unlikely friendships took root and bloomed. A contingent of mothers came together in the lobby every night, sewing costumes and making tissue paper “poppies” for the stage. Kids who wandered past the entrance were recruited and given jobs – stage crew, selling tickets, hanging posters on telephone poles around the neighborhood. Tunes pounded out of the slightly out-of-tune piano and the smell of freshly painted set pieces wafted in the air. It was the kind of summer where anything seemed possible.
But by the second week, we were worried about Dee. One moment, she’d be funny, bright and engaged, but she kept missing her cues and wouldn’t say her lines properly. As the good witch of the north, she had to carry the first big number after Dorothy’s arrival in Oz. The munchkins were cute, but she was the sassy engine that moved the story forward. Most of the exposition came from her characters’s lines. Dee began to seem disconnected and insecure. At one particularly tense rehearsal, the director pushed the issue and asked Dee to read directly from her script. Each time she said her lines, they were different. She would assimilate corrections, but then lose them or twist them about on the next reading. The truth became obvious. Dee’s literacy skills were painfully low. She would listen to others and memorize what they said and, bright as she was, she pulled it off most of the time, but she could barely read.
The “grown-ups” quickly convened a conference to decide what to do. Should we re-cast the part? Who would fit into her costume, much less play the role? Could we change and redistribute her lines and have someone else say them? Could we hide a prompter on the set somewhere to cue her? How would we break the news to Dee, and how could we make sure the other children in our happy little universe didn’t see this as a setback? The uncertainty was enough to make us think we might not be able to pull this whole ambitious project off after all. When we finally emerged from our conference, Dee was nowhere to be found.
A casual search of the building (we didn’t want to alarm the other kids) yielded nothing. No one had seen her leave, but no one seemed to know where she had gone. Frantic, I set out on foot walking the neighborhood while someone else drove the surrounding streets, to no avail. There was no answer at her home phone when we called. As the evening’s rehearsal came to a close, and the children filed out, either on foot or into waiting mini vans, I worried we might not see Dee again. It seemed a harbinger of failure for the whole project.
And then I noticed Mary’s mother, waiting patiently in the rapidly emptying lobby. Her daughter also appeared to be among the missing. I could conceive of Dee leaving on foot; she walked to rehearsal on her own each night. But Mary was shuttled door to door in her family’s mini-van. She had always been exactly where she was supposed to be, awaiting her cue. The idea that she had left the theatre to wander an unfamiliar neighborhood was inconceivable. Her mother was clearly expecting Mary’s imminent emergence from practice. The realization dawned on me that I’d potentially lost not one, but two children. I decided to make one more frantic pass through the building before it became clear to Mary’s mother that all the other children had already headed home and her daughter’s whereabouts were unknown.
With the building clear of the other children, I was able to make out the faint sound of their voices coming from the end of a narrow corridor where set pieces were stored. Flats that had once made up the walls of a Victorian era drawing room blocked me from view so that I could hear them before they could see me approach. “Ok, again,” Mary said softly, as Dee recited her lines. “Good, now remember, it’s ‘you oughta see her act honey,’ not ‘catch her act,’ okay?” Mary’s voice was serious but full of warmth. “Yeah. Right,” Dee replied, continuing on. They were perched on the underside of a dust-covered, upside-down sofa. They were facing each other cross-legged, each head inclined down towards the script in her lap so that the crowns of their heads nearly touched. Dee’s eyes were squeezed shut, not looking at the page. “Kansas? Oh I don’t think so! That comes under the heading of transporting a minor across state lines,” Dee recited, with growing confidence. “Yes!” Mary squealed, clapping her hands together. Dee beamed back at her.
“Ladies!” I called casually. “Time to head out. Rehearsal’s over.” They smiled at one another briefly, then gathered their binders and scampered ahead of me, down the steps to the lobby. Mary’s mother, waiting at the bottom of the stairs, saw her daughter coming and turned to lead the way out. When she reached the bottom of the staircase, Mary turned purposefully to face Dee. “See you tomorrow,” she said breathlessly. Dee smiled. “Yeah,” she said, “See you tomorrow.” Her smile was full of unspoken gratitude. Mary bounced down the steps, slid into the backseat of the waiting mini-van and pulled the door closed. I stood next to Dee on the theatre steps as it pulled away.
Dee grinned at me. “See you tomorrow,” she said, and she started up the street in the growing mid-summer dusk.
I had so much to learn…