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.