At 5 a.m. Friday, Aug. 21, the alarm rang. I hadn’t been sleeping. It was opening night for “When We Were Colored,” the one-act play I’d adapted from my mother’s memoir.
I’d been working on it for more than a year. I found a theater, a director, a set designer and actors to play all three characters: my mother, my father and me.
I was feeling more than just opening-night jitters. The dress rehearsal the night before had been a disaster. The young woman playing my mother, Eva, was outstanding; ditto for the actor playing me.
But the man I’d found to play my father, Bill, was floundering, distracted, unable to remember his lines, and feuding with the director.
I worked with him outside of regular rehearsals, trying to channel my father’s humor, his athleticism, his gruff but caring manner. To no avail. Onstage, the actor was either wooden or silent.
I had three choices: let him go on and ruin the play; find a replacement in the next 14 hours; or step in myself. I’d be crossing gender and generational boundaries to play my own dad onstage. Good thing he wasn’t around to see it, I figured.
When I told the actor we were replacing him, he begged to be given one more chance. I relented. It was noon. The play was set to open at 7 that evening.
The scene chosen for this last test was one of the more crucial ones in the play. Bill is lamenting that the “Rutlands are fading, you know, losing our blackness.”
His specific complaint was that he had seen his biracial granddaughter fill out a school form and mark “white” in the box for ethnicity.
“Well, she is half-white,” Eva, my mother says, with a placating tone.
“But she’s half-black, too,” Bill fumes.
The actor’s failing grade was confirmed when he couldn’t remember any of Bill’s lines about his granddaughter’s explanation of her equal-opportunity approach to school forms:
“Granddaddy, don’t worry. This year I marked white. Next year I’ll mark black. Then I’ll mark white again. I change it every year.”
So, seven hours later I stood before a sold-out audience and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen. There’s been a cast change.”
I played my father for all eight performances, and the play sold out for every one of them.
I can’t say I filled his shoes, but I felt a deepened kinship with him by playing him. It made me reflect on the countless times he stood up in front of the world and took chances to ensure his family – like my show – would go on.
Ginger Rutland was an editorial writer at The Sacramento Bee for 25 years and now writes plays. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.