I changed my email signature last night. For months it had read;
JUST A CONVERSATION OVER CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS
By Michelle Dobbs
Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall
April 5-7, 2019
I had been waiting for this signature for all of my adult life. This story, one my grandmother told me about Us had waited 25 years to be told. My hands shook when I first created it. Could it be?
And so, I invited my relatives. They’d all read pieces and early drafts of the novel, had looked at the photos and letters of the story in our childhood, and they showed up. They came to find about 100 people to watch with, and I couldn’t have been happier. Book clubs, writer’s cirlces, Mommy friends, quilters and other artists all gathered to hear. My favorite people in my favorite place; the same building where Gregory and I got married, where I’d danced as a little girl with the symphony, where I first listened to Tchaikovsky with my Grandma Lil, where I drop off my daughter for her Nutcracker performances with the rest of her choir. Bliss.
Easily among the happiest moments of my life – it was that good getting picked up in the morning that time we sunk a boat on a deserted island happiness.
But before that, I’d spent hours per night in rehearsals, serving as dramaturge, a sort of backstory builder, by showing pictures of the people the characters had been based on in period clothes, and sharing details about the story. I met the cast and they were delightful; batch of lovely performers who worked hard and had fun.
I felt, sometimes, like I’d fallen into an afterschool special where A 50 year old lady finally gets to tell her story, but only if she works like a whirling dervish because all the cousins are coming. Viola Davis would play me. She would brave all the plot twists with good humor and wisdom and pluck. Because you know all those potholes that always befall tiny theater companies with big hearts in those stories? This show suffered them all; 2 cases of the flu, spare to none budget, bumped from rehearsal spaces, 1 case of strep throat, and a brief but sincere struggle with short term amnesia.
And then came the previews. I had one moment when I walked out to a seat in the balcony, just to see the set. One of the sound guys who came with the venue said, “This is based on real people?” I told him yes, and he said, nodding his head “This is a good show. I like it. Good show.” That moment might have been the best – I received an affirmation from someone who watches dozens of shows per year from companies around the area, relates to the premise and doesn’t know me from Adam. I sort of smiled, and he turned to the other sound guys, telling them what a good show this was, while they nodded too. When I walked off, I beamed.
And so, we opened. It was time to let go. She was an awkward thing, my new play hoping to take flight -beautiful, but lumpy. The next night, more of the same. The critics came, and asked some questions, we went, some relatives and I, to the cast party at the director’s house. We brought desserts. I sat and ate and laughed with my family, and the actors who played my ancestors. It was wild- and a scene I will never forget. Everyone was there: Papa Jim, Lois and Aunt Maggie were eating Lorelei’s pumpkin cake, patting their feet and humming for that recipe. And those of us on this side really cherished one another on that day. We passed babies and food and loved on each other the way we know the ancestors want us to.
And then, on the last night, the stars aligned. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, having partied and chitchatted myself into a complete and stunned silence. I sat at the back of the theater with a glass of wine, prepared to watch my baby struggle. My real-life sunny side up baby sat next to me – ready to focus on the good when the play stumbled.
The first spotlight went up, and it clicked. The songs were well received, and applauded. People laughed at the funny parts and cried at the sad parts and did both for every twist. Maybe it was the letting go, maybe it was the wine. But I felt every sigh the actors created, and when they finished the audience stood to their feet. At first, I thought that maybe they were as overwhelmed as I, and were ready to go. I handed Ole Sunnyside my purse and stood up too, headed downstream to the edge of the stage for a super brief talk back, considering they seemed to want to get out of the theater. And then the director turned to me and said to me with a smirky smile, “An ovation.” My heart stood still.
Cue the Little Rascals double take.
Slap my ass and call me Fanny, they were standing and applauding.
Just when I was sick and tired of wearing makeup, having a hairdo, talking to strangers, and pressing myself way too far for the sake of a piece of art, that happened. And then, I understood why people do this. I let that ovation serve as some kind of message from the viewers that they had allowed my American story to play out in their imaginations, and they got it. The story was told.
Many people since then have contacted me and talked of their own family saga, which has included all kinds of things; Adopting kids within families, Mission Schools and Native American genocide, locomotives and the internet, riding hobo for work and homelessness. There were some little girls teaching the song from the first scene to their friends when I went to pick up my daughter from school on Monday.
You’d think that would be enough for me: I set a goal, I toughed it out, at the expense of everything and everyone I hold dear, and I met that goal. Nope.
Next show is in October.