Without alternatives there can be no definitions. A black girl from Lackawanna named Diana taught me that. (Too detailed and delicate a story for here; suffice to say that it took years for me to see who was truly the brave one in that situation. Not me.)
About that same time, in the summer of my eighteenth year, I played the part of Grumio, Servant to Petruchio, in a Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Taming of the Shrew in Buffalo, New York—my final theatrical performance in my home town. Our venue was a truck band shell with a thrust stage on the shore of Delaware Park’s polluted lake. There were no fences, gates, or tickets—a true public performance for the inner city, open to all.
We were playing it for laughs, and I was given the task of warming the audience up to that fact with an extra-textual piece of silent solo slapstick business to open the play.
By the time the lights went up on opening night and I prat-fell my way onto the stage to loosen them up, the audience was invisible in the growing dark beyond the kliegs. My initial shtick got some laughs, then more as the hundreds of people sitting on the steps and embankment above the stage realized that they were being invited to laugh with the bard. When they laughed loud I would snap up attentive as if I had heard a distant unsuspected noise—more laughs—and then as I seemed to shake it out of my head and squint again into the blinding lights that hid them from me, they laughed even harder. I was doing Grumio as Red Skelton.
By mid-routine the laughs were coming when I wanted them and I played them along. (The fine thing about comedy is that it is obvious when the audience is yours.) A yell came up from the rear of the crowd stage right, and I looked up stage-suspicious again, to laughs.
The first rock, the size of a baseball, struck the table I was setting about two feet away from me and bounced off the flat behind me. The second rock shattered on the stage about ten feet in front of me. For the last few microseconds of their arrival I had seen both of them coming in, once they had entered the arc of the stage lights, too late to react. A frozen extended moment in my life that has yet to fully melt ensued as I awaited the next rock, more rocks to flash into visionary trajectory.
I finished the scene, the play, the season’s run of Shrew, but I never wanted to act again. Directions are sometimes set by the actions of others. You work for concert, coordination, inter-personal non-confrontation—the way you walk down a midtown Manhattan sidewalk—but rock-throwing thugs can divert you. Perhaps I should have thanked them.
Diana still appears in random dreams, shaking her head at me.
2 thoughts on “The Gravitational Pull of Negativity”
I emended those Shakespeare in the Park plays so very well . A group of high school and college friends who bravely mounted staged plays for the public in Delaware Park. Btw, the lake may have been polluted, but it still was a beautiful backdrop.
How audacious of all of you—especially my brother Michael Joyce— whoi believe was your ringleader. I remember those evening performances as great fun and a well done.
I don’t think I was there for unfortunate rock throwing end to your Shakespearean career. It seems too bad — I do know that you were an engaging actor.
I think it’s really unjust that you Genesian Players, especially Michael, never got the credit you ALL deserved for your vision, ingenuity and plain moxie for making Shakespeare available to the people of Buffalo. It’s hard to believe how young you were when you did this! Unfortunately, Saul Elkins from ( I think) Ub’s theatre department gets the kudos for Shakespeare in the Park.
Anyway, thanks for this memory. Hope that when you’re bored at home you read some Shakespeare and maybe even aloud. Make a performance of it. You’re safe from rock- throwers.
Yes, your truly amazing brother Michael was the ringleader, director, maestro. That was our second summer season of the Genesian Players. The first season we rented an empty theater on the West Side and put on the Madwoman of Chaillot. Neither of us was 18 yet. No adults involved. Our rehearsal space was my parents’ big backyard on Main Street, Few people realized the group was named after St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors. Our final season, as Michael and I were in NYC the next year.
Talk about moxie, it runs in your family–your courageous come-back from Covid Hell. Continue your battle, You are an inspiration to all of us in the over-the-hill gang. Love, John.