Monday, August 15, 2011

A Second Coming

A second coming "My mom drove past Central High every day," said the New York musician who grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas.

We were waiting for the curtain to go up on Jerusalem, the play for which actor Mark Rylance won the 2010 Tony. Fascinated by the conversation with the couple to my left, I asked to hear the anecdote the musician had promised.

"My Dad believed in public education despite Governor Faubus. He drove around the city and campaigned for the right for anyone to go to public schools regardless of race or religion. One night, after he'd been doing that for a while, someone tried to burn down our house."

I mentioned that my book, No Gold Stars, about the civil right era in Greenville,SC was coming out soon. We talked about how I integrated Reverend Jesse Jackson's alma mater, Sterling Jr.-Sr. High, that there was no museum there like the one for Central High.

Mentioning the statute that had been erected in downtown Greenville to memorialize Sterling seemed unnecessary, a trifle compared to a museum. That's why I directed a question at the musician's wife, an opera singer born in New York. "Do you know anything about this play?"

"Not really," she said. "Friends have recommended it, but I asked them not to tell me anything about it. Wanted to experience it for myself."

The lights dimmed. I was left wondering why a play named Jerusalem was set in England, and why it began with a young girl wearing angel wings singing a very old song adapted from a William Blake poem. Less than a minute later, all hell broke loose. Shocking as an errant lightning bolt inside the Music Box Theater, a noisy party in the front yard of a Winnebago in the middle of a maple woods erupted. For the next three hours, the cast would not leave that set.

Nor would any of us take our eyes off the main character, Johnny "Rooster" Byron. From the first quiet moment of the first scene, he, played by Rylance, captured everyone's attention. By the end of the frenzied first act, all of us knew that Rooster was a ringleader surrounded by (underaged) devotees and that he was in a heap of trouble.

And he was, in an often terrifying way, magical. But why was the play called Jerusalem? The hint came from lines of the song, sung acapella, that opened the play. Here are the last two:

Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant land.

Of course, the audience realized that what was seen as green and pleasant was considered to be the neighborhood that had been built around the vestige of forest that surrounded Rooster's trailer. He was the problem, the civilly disobedient renegade who destroyed his connection with cultural icons by bashing his flat screen TV with a cricket bat while in the throes of a drunken stupor.

If that hardly sounds to you like the deed of a modern day hero, I'd have to agree. In profoundly unique ways, Rooster wasn't that at all. Instead, he was portrayed as a modern day Jesus, resurrection, virgin birth and all.

What surprised me was how well he pulled it off, how much like the beleagured ero of Man For All Seasons he seemed to be, albeit in a different era and in completely different circumstances. Jerusalem is one of the few plays I've ever seen that I want to see again. Acting performed more skillfully is rare.

For many reasons, I cried, sobbed near the play's end, throughout the longest applause I've ever heard, and its numerous curtain calls. Indeed, Rooster had tossed an emotion laden spear through a target I had made readily available, my heart. In a word, Rylance's acting was that inspirational.

At once, at play's end, I felt empowered and vulnerable, shaky yet standing taller than when I firsr sat down. I had witnessed a creative triumph, its story so far out of the ordinary box that I felt challenged to do something similar. Or, as I did when I integrated Sterling, to do something just as meaningful once again.

If I figure out what that is, I may even say something like, "Rooster made me do it." And you, unlike a world full of the uninformed, will know exactly what I mean.

B. Koplen 8/15/11

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