“There was a moving feeling within me that I was sitting there demanding a God given right and my soul became satisfied that I was right in what I was doing. At the same time there was something deep down within me, moving me, that I could no longer be satisfied or go along with an evil system that I had to be maladjusted to, and in spite of all of this, I had to keep loving the people that denied me service.”
~John Lewis, Civil Rights Leader (Quote taken from NBC's White Paper: Sit in)
Don't worry, I'm not going to be so trite as to compare my Helen plight to the fight for racial equality. That would just be ridiculous. But, I do have to tell you how fortunate I feel to have a job that brings me back to reality and constantly puts me into contact with reminders about the conditions that others have fought against throughout history....the obstacles that people before me have had to overcome to make changes...the challenges that were bravely faced in the name of justice.
This month I have been teaching a lot of Civil Rights classes and it's made me reflect on why I would choose to spend so much of my time on this project. I started in this industry as an actor, and becoming disillusioned with it after a number of successful years in the business, I went back to graduate school. I started teaching in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city. I did that for many years, and then I wrote a play about it for my graduate thesis. I wanted to share what I had experienced with more people than my immediate circle of friends. What I saw, what I was exposed to, and what I witnessed about society, about injustice and about struggle was important, and so I felt the need to immortalize it by writing about it.
The first summer I used Wendi's story as the impetus for a mini-musical with sixteen 5th grade girls I felt those feelings stirring in me again. There was something in her piece that resonated with all of us and that needed to be told, shared and addressed. A friend of mine who saw the show on Wednesday night sent me an email saying, "the takeaway that Vita got from the whole ordeal, speaks to children of ALL ages. It surely resonated with me."
Regardless of what happens with Helen on 86th St. come May 9th, I feel like I've done my job. This story has resonated with so many people. This experience--the attempt to create a piece of art and bring it to the community with no industry help or guidance and very little money--has resonated with so many people. We have no idea what lies ahead, but what has come to pass has been incredibly special and important. And let's be honest, we still have a great deal of racial inequality and injustice, but that doesn't make the strength and power behind John Lewis' words any less poignant.
All we can do is our best.
And every person involved in Helen on 86th St., from the parent volunteers to the actors, creative team, production team and fans, did better than their best.
And that is a beautiful thing.