Saturday, January 31, 2015

Beginning a New Year

I’m slowly moving out of first gear after a week in Playa del Carmen, celebrating my 65th birthday with five old friends from the States. All Christian, preacher women, which for anyone who knows me is a seeming contradiction. I transitioned from Christian to one God many paths after studying world religions for four years at George School. But quirks and contradictions are what make life interesting. Mostly we hung out at the resort—only went into town twice, once for a day for spa services, the second time for my birthday dinner. We embraced laziness—life had been an ass-kicker for most of us at the end of last year. My challenge had been helping the daughter of an old friend navigate death in a foreign country. Aishah Rahman, a woman I met in my early 20s, died here in San Miguel at the end of last year. She was the second theatre mentor I lost last year.

I was in my mid-20s when I met Aishah. When I moved back to New York after a stint working with a theatre in Atlanta, Aishah was close with Nikki Coleman, one of my roommates. Aishah mesmerized me. Her presence was arresting, regal like Nina. But it wasn’t her physical that attracted me; it was her absolute comfort with who she was. She was bold, lived life on her terms, didn’t follow convention. I remember thinking, I want to be like her when I grow up.

I have vivid memories of opening night for Transcendental Blues, her play that explores the lives of teenaged mothers on the last day of Charlie Parker’s life. I marveled at the mind that could envision this juxtaposition. Hers was a unique voice. And at the after party, there was Aishah, holding court, resplendent in a hand-crocheted ensemble. I would remember that evening, filled with fascinating people and lots of drugs, for years.

I only saw Aishah intermittently once Nikki and I were no longer roommates, almost lost touch with her completely when she started teaching at Brown. But when Nikki and I became roommates again, my first year in San Miguel, Aishah and I reconnected.  Our relationship was different. I had moved from idolization to admiration so we could be peers.

We spoke now and then, often about writing—we’d both gone to Goddard for our MFAs. Talked more regularly once Aishah started thinking about moving to San Miguel. She came for a short visit, called a few months later to ask if I could help her find a place long-term.

She’d been here a little more than a year with a hiatus in the summer. She was working on a new book so we talked more than visited even though she lived less than a five-minute walk from me.  But Aishah had almost finished and we’d been talking about traveling in Mexico this year. After her death, Yoruba, her daughter, said, I thought we had more time. So did I.

Georgia Allen introduced me to acting and was also a second mom. I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t part of my life. She was one of Mama’s cut-buddies. Both started teaching at Turner High when it opened in ’51. Summers, Georgia and her two children, Judy and Punch, now known as Henry, drove to New York with Mama and me. She and Mama drove red-robin, changing drivers every three hours. Georgia was a speed-demon, covered at least an additional 50 miles more than Mama during her three-hour stints.

Georgia was the Black actress in Atlanta. I couldn’t have been more than six the first time I saw her onstage at Spelman where Black theatre happened when I was a kid—the Spelman/Morehouse Players during the school year, the Atlanta University Summer Theatre in July and August. It was watching Georgia as Bloody Mary in South Pacific that made me think I might want to be an actress. She did it all from musicals to the classics and inhabited every character she played. And when other theatre companies in Atlanta started using Black actors, Georgia was the first one cast. I was about 14 when we went to one of the downtown theatres to see her perform in Tartuffe.  She went to Broadway with Red, White and Maddox and once the 70s came, started working in film.

All the while she taught, first at Turner High School, where she cast me in my first play, later at Harper High. And directed—Georgia was the first director of my one-woman show Sally of Monticello. Dozens of actors who passed through Atlanta where taught, inspired, mentored by Georgia but she was also one of my aunties.

When great-aunt Clara, the last of my grandparents’ generation, passed, Mama bemoaned the fact that now she was the older generation. I guess that’s what I am now. Scary because I’m not sure I’m wise.