unless you was me, how could you judge me?
-rapper Jay-Z in "Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)"
I had been listening to Jay-Z on my way to the women's shelter yesterday in an attempt to pump myself up for what would surely be another rough evening.
Last week, my first time with the women, they put me through the ringer; though I appeared to have passed their test, I couldn't begin to predict what this second day would bring. Try as I might, and even though I had just lifted a bunch of really heavy stuff a bunch of times at the YMCA, I couldn't find my usual bring-it-on attitude. I was more like a doomed and doleful junior high boy caught in an alley: I know you're going to beat the crap out of me, so just get it over with.
But then I walk in there and it's all Hi, Amy and When are we going to start? Shellie, the director, said it again: "They just had to check you out."
I sat down for awhile with some of the women and did what women do: compared the sizes of babies we bore (I won, with Theo at 10lbs 12oz). Off by herself was a woman I'll call MJ--short for Michael Jackson, whom she imitated at random during last week's session--being uncharacteristically quiet and distracted.
I started things up with a joke. "I say 'theatre games,' you say 'oh, no!'"
"Say it like you're angry."
"Say it loud."
On we went, through some basic warm-ups, and, thanks to Jay-Z, a segue into characterization. Unless you was me, how could you judge me? His words got the women talking about how we can really know someone if we can't ever walk in their shoes. Through acting we can try, I offered; we can walk as if we were wearing those shoes--stooped, perhaps, or with an easy gait; and we can talk in rapid-fire bullets, or we can meander through slow, poetic ramblings.
Actors try, as best they can, to take on the essence of another person. This is empathy at its core, and empathy is what makes the world go round.
I pulled out a picture of wrestler Triple H and asked everybody to stand like him.
A few took on the pose. MJ let out a fierce growl.
"I'm assuming you're not like this in real life," I said to her.
Everybody, including MJ, nodded that indeed, she was.
"Let's try for some real acting, then." I brought her up in front of the others and showed her a photo of a pensive Ethiopian woman holding a baby. MJ looked a bit disappointed that she'd need to be serious, and I admit I expected her to add a certain flair to draw attention to herself rather than be true to the exercise.
But then she took a moment, gathered her composure, relaxed her face, and completely took on the spirit of the woman in the picture. In acting, this is called "being committed." For what would not be the last time that evening, I offered that perhaps she should be teaching this class, not me.
We continued through other exercises; MJ was a spot-on fashion model, and I dissected her performance so others could see the genius as well. I asked a woman playing "chain smoker" to become a chain smoker entering church, where she couldn't light up. How would that affect her characterization if she couldn't do the thing that was core to her character? She became fidgety, began biting her nails. I invited her and the others to participate, in character, in my "talk show."
"Welcome! I'm excited about our show today. We've got musical guest Jay-Z performing later on in the hour, but first, let's give it up for these special guests right here!"
Each guest was asked to tell what they did with the million dollars each of them happened to win. The prison warden bought a house in the country, because she had grown up on a farm. The snobby girl was moving to a European villa. Jennifer--one woman decided to play the woman sitting next to her--bought out McDonald's.
I milked the show until my Bored-O-Meter went into the red (there's a woman who, at the slightest drop in energy in the room, will stand up and walk off as if she's been offended. I'm never quite sure how she gets back into her seat in time for the next boring moment). I wrapped things up in my talk show host voice, saying "Thank you all, tune in next time," etc., as the actors left to take their seats. MJ walked up and stood next to me.
"Oh, did you want to be on the talk show?" I asked her.
"No. I'm Jay-Z," she said, and proceeded to rap.
I slowly made my way off to the side as she rapped and rhymed her way through a few lines. It all sounded pretty solid, so I figured this must be some song I don't know.
We're all clapping along, enjoying the performance, and then I hear the words "win a million dollars."
She's rapping on the spot about what we just did.
Ten, twelve lines of rhyming perfection ending with the message that if you don't share what you have, if you "keep it all for you," the true riches "won't come back to your crew." The place burst into applause.
We concluded the evening with Body Prayer. A pregnant woman formed her hands into a roof above her head as her request; we all did it with her. It snapped us out of the make-believe, made us face the reality that each of us still wore the same shoes as before--and when you've walked the streets all day, those shoes barely fit over your swollen, tired feet.
But part of the reality in front of us was the pride on MJ's face, the buoyancy of her mood.
Unless you was her, you may never know how good that feels.