Tuesday, September 28, 2021

"I Done Done What You Told Me to Do"

 [Solicted for a project on Jesuits and Theater, coordinated by George Drance, SJ]

The title of this reflection comes from one of the grand old Spirituals, which should be no surprise to anyone who has sampled any of my other writings. What amazed me when I discovered this song, just a few minutes before I began writing this piece, is how it could be the drumbeat for a meditation on how one lives one’s vocation – no matter what the circumstance or specifics of the call. Not only could I use this song as a way of thinking about all the moments in my life when I was told to do something by my parents or by teachers, something – anything – that I was either hesitant to do or absolutely paralyzed from doing, I can use this song as a way into understanding how faith has been performed throughout my life.  No; it is not a quirk that I have never been able to imagine doing all sorts of great and fulfilling things. I tell people that I have been most successful when I have been told, “I think you ought to do……” and I say, “If you say so….” I have learned to trust those who see gifts in me that I often overlook.


My sixty years of work in theater is the perfect proof of this being led by faith into and out of a wilderness of discovery and transformation. Within weeks of my entering the Society of Jesus in 1962, Fr. Joseph D. Sheehan, our Novice Master, understood that I would need a forceful intervention in my life if I were to ever break through the overwhelming fear I had of speaking in public. Oh, I had been the drum major for the Beloit Catholic High School marching band for three years in high school. But in almost every other public setting I fell into a traumatic state of confusion and fear. I had to be forced to have my picture taken, to be put behind a microphone to speak. Looking back all these decades, I know why this condition controlled so much of my public life. Racism. I was the only Black person in my high school for three of my four years in attendance. The administrators manipulated me into every publicity photo ever produced. I was always pushed forward for the public view. Even my selection as drum major was racially based. “You have a better sense of rhythm than the other band members,” our band director said. Oh, really? The only Black kid in the school? How sensitive. And how completely wrong – at least in the beginning. By my senior year I could perform as well as any drum major in any of the southern Wisconsin high schools.

Three months after I entered the novitiate, Fr. Sheehan had grown frustrated with having to demand that I answer questions or offer comments in our classes. He called me to his office one afternoon, to “give him some advice,” he said. The novitiate was going to produce a holiday musical. It would be a parody of “The Music Man,” called, “Man, Music.”  And he wanted my opinion as to which novices could be cast in many of the roles in the play. He handed me the cast list. My name was already there. “No.” I was clear. “I will not appear on stage. I cannot appear on stage.” “I didn’t ask your permission,” he said. And truly, the rest is history. I went into the absolute wilderness of the theater and came out of the wilderness, more alive than I had ever dreamed possible. The first enthusiastic laughter and applause for what I was doing told me that I should wade into that water, with faith and gratitude.

During my four years in that building, I acted in seven plays – sometimes small roles; sometimes the lead roles. Crafting costumes and creating choreography when needed, added to my skills set. Soon after I moved on to St. Louis University to begin the formal study of philosophy, theater classes and productions became a therapeutic oasis.  My year of graduate studies at Johns Hopkins pulled me into directing – at the request of the Hopkins undergraduate drama club. I directed three plays (two one-acts and one full-length play) during that one academic year. And on and on.

In all of these years, I learned that the theme for this reflection is about faith. This Spiritual fits how I feel about religious life and priesthood – connecting also with another powerful meditation, “Done Made My Vows to the Lord, and I will go, I shall go, to see what the end will be.”  That was the song Sr. Thea Bowman blessed us with when the community of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies visited her in Canton, Mississippi, the year before she died.  


I will go. I won’t turn back. I will trust the truth of the vision of others. I have no idea what the end will be, but when I get farther along the path, I will tell God, the ancestors, my elders and my trusted circle, “I done done what you told me to do.”  That is theater at its most vulnerable and transparent.  We trust the script, the director, the actors, the crew. Faith. And then…. oh, how blessed is the moment when we begin to have faith in ourselves; seeing, finally, within us what those who love and trust us have always seen.

From a production of “Teahouse of the August Moon,” performed at St. Louis University in 1968. The director, Leo Hanson, had to convince me that I could play a 90-year-old village elder of Okinawa. At least one member of the audience confirmed Mr. Hanson’s choice. They asked him who was that retired professor who played the old man. An almost 70-year difference between my age and the age of the character. It does not matter. The Spirit of Wisdom inhabits all of us.

And from the most recent moment of blessing and confirmation: playing Solly Two Kings in the 2018 production of “Gem of the Ocean” at Southern Illinois University. The character fit me better than a costume. An elder taking a young questor on a journey into their history and then turning over the role of guide to the young one.

Teaching? Ministry? Acting and directing? Being an elder? 

I done done what I was told to do.