My brief involvement with theater began in an Ethiopian market almost 40 years ago. My children and I were discussing chickens when Joan, the wife of a young American military adviser, interrupted. "You have just the voice we need for our next play," she exclaimed. "Could you come over to my house and read some lines?"
I had misgivings as I followed Joan in our Landrover filled with groceries and four sons. "Once I was a rabbit in a third-grade play," I told them. "But I didn't have any lines. I don't think I'd be any good as an actress."
"Dunno, Mom, you're pretty funny," my eldest said.
"Yeah, Mom," chorused his brothers loyally.
Outside Joan's gate, a huddle of Jeeps and Landrovers indicated that tryouts were already under way. "We'll only stay a minute," I assured the boys. "Perhaps there'll be cookies or juice."
What we found in Joan's living room were several American wives feasting on coffee cake, while a colonel's wife from Georgia dangled a doll-like figure from an intricate tangle of strings.
"It's easy, girls," she was saying. "Just move your fingers, and Peter Pan will walk up and down and wave his l'il hands." We exclaimed in awe. "And fla-ah through the air like this." Peter Pan soared above the cups and lighted on target by the cream pitcher. "Just a matter of pulling the ra-aht strings," Frances assured us.
Three hours later, the boys and I bumped down the dusty road to home, thrilled with the magic of theater and filled to the brim with coffee cake. "Don't tell Daddy that I'm in the marionette show," I begged as we unloaded the wilted vegetables. "He thinks I'm too busy already."
"We won't," Tony said cagily. "If you'll let us play with Captain Hook." They were still flying their pirate friend around the yard when their father came home.
"Captain Hook yet," he snorted. "Really, Sal."
"Well, I suppose it was type casting," I admitted. "But I had the loudest voice of any of the women. There's a bit of Sarah Bernhardt in every girl," I added airily. "It won't take much time."
Rehearsals began immediately and lasted all morning. In addition to memorizing our parts, we learned to operate our weighty 18-inch marionettes. After a few practice sessions our fingers were blistered and our thoughts muddled with memorable quotes that intrigued our offspring.
"Great blinkin' barnacles," Tony would mutter at the breakfast table, "Mommy's burned the toast again. She'll have to walk the plank."
Tim agreed over scrambled eggs. "She's getting entirely too careless."
Captain Hook took up a permanent position on my bedroom door. Between rehearsals I led him up and down the back hall, brandishing his lethal sword, muttering, "Oh, what a deliciously wicked pirate I am."
Under Joan's effervescent direction, the play began to take shape. While American wives were marionette-making, their husbands grudgingly constructed a marionette stage at the YMCA, rigged lights, set up sound amplifiers, and attended giddy fund-raisers.
The final week of rehearsal was chaotic. On Monday, an Ethiopian holiday, Wendy went camping in the Ethiopian lake country and was too sunburned to handle her strings on Tuesday. Tinkerbell's baby sitter had not appeared, so Tinkerbell brought her children to the rehearsal. My four-year-old, Tony, was also there. He had been to so many rehearsals he knew everyone's lines.
On Wednesday, Captain Hook's wicked mate, Smee, in real life a skilled horsewoman, was thrown and broke a collarbone. Hastily we pulled in army wife Frances and her Georgia accent. "Fire the guns!" Captain Hook would boom, and Smee would come right back, "Ah, ah, Suh. Readah, aim, fi-ah!"
On Thursday, our Austrian pianist played Brahms instead of Stravinsky during the sword duel. Pan was so unnerved he dropped his sword. Hook lost his head, literally. It rolled across the stage and plopped into the director's lap.
The Peter Pan premiere was Saturday evening. Early that morning I woke not feeling well. It was too late to break in a new Hook. At regular intervals the cast phoned for updates on my condition from my spouse.
Just before curtain time Hook and I were eased into the Landrover. The boys were ominously silent while we bounced over ruts and around potholes. At the battered YMCA gate, Ethiopians of all ages were jostling to get through.
"Must've been an accident or somethin'," murmured Jon. "Lookit all the police."
"Spose all those guys are here to see Mommy?" ventured Timmy.
From my front seat, I straightened up. "Of course they are," I quavered. "The show must go on."
I dangled Captain Hook through the window at the nearest policeman and was deposited with a flourish at the front door. The hall was jammed with theater lovers. The pianist was going into her prelude for the third time.
Backstage, Joan was almost hysterical. "Thank heavens, Hook. You're here," she blubbered. "Just look at our house." She pushed me to a peek hole in the curtain.
In the front row center perched the 12 youngest grandchildren of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie. The princesses wore pastel frocks; the curly-haired princes were in Eton suits.
Behind the royal grandchildren squirmed an international delegation of scrubbed moppets from the embassies and ordinary children from all over.
"Pull the curtain," Joan whispered.
Act I opened in the nursery of the Darling family home in London. Wendy and her brothers were sound asleep in their beds; Peter Pan was perched on the window sill. The fragile perfection of James Barrie's classic lasted but a moment. "There's Mommy!" squealed voices from all corners of the dark auditorium. When the pleased recognition died down, Act I went off without a hitch.
Peter and the children fluttered off to Never Never Land crying, "I can fly. I can fly." The curtains jerked together to wild applause.
Act II opened on the deck of the pirate ship, the terrible Captain Hook striding back and forth trailed by his devoted Smee. I began my opening lines, "I'll capture Peter Pan if it's the last thing I do," I bellowed. Sidekick Smee opened his mouth for "Ah, Ah, Suh," but a dulcet voice from the front row got there first. I hastily chimed in as the voice continued, "Out of my way, Smee, you clumsy landlubber."
"Shiver me timbers," we continued together. "It is too much for a terrible pirate like me to bear." Audience laughter drowned us out. I waited helpless while someone in the audience stifled my incorrigible son Tony.
Act III sailed along with unscheduled realism. Captain Hook's hook tangled with Pan's foot, and both were dragged to the wings for repairs. As the sword duel began, the onlookers were worked up to a fever pitch. They booed Captain Hook and stamped their feet approvingly when Pan flew down in the nick of time to rescue Wendy from the plank.
For the finale, we would-be actresses trooped out in front of the curtains, each dangling her marionette. Children surged forward, hands outstretched to touch the lifelike figures. "Make 'em fly, lady. Please make 'em fly." Only our rescue by weary husbands kept us from staying all night.
As we careened home at dusk over the rough roads of Addis Ababa, an aura of well-being filled the family Landrover. It had been a strain having an actress in the family. "Gosh, Mom," our oldest confessed. "I was so afraid you'd goof. And everyone would know you were my mother."