BRONN: “Toshiko?” I said to my wife. “Could you hand me the entertainment section of today's Ellington Herald?”
She did so. “The review of your very first play should be in it, Bronn. I bet they liked it. I did.”
I turned the pages of the newspaper until I reached the reviews section. I tried not to stare at what I found. One paragraph? Just one lousy paragraph? Who were they trying to kid? I sighed and read it anyway.
When I didn't say anything, my wife asked, “What is it, honey? Is something wrong?”
At first, I honestly didn't hear her; I felt like a hermit out in the middle of nowhere. She repeated her questions and this time I heard her.
“I don't believe it,” I said. “The newspaper drama critic panned it. They gave my play one star out of five. How could they be so close-minded?”
I heard Toshiko stand up and walk over to where I sat. She read the review over my shoulder and said nothing at first.
She looked away. “Baka,” she said under her breath. “Bakayarou.” Then she looked at me and said, “Sorry. I shouldn't swear, whether it's in Japanese or English.”
“You're only human,” I said.
She shrugged. “Is that reviewer absolutely serious?”
I nodded. Forget about getting at least a week or two to find your audience. Good luck in getting two days. If the play had been on “The Gong Show”, at least one of the judges would've hit the gong behind the judges' area by now.
“Was it really that bad, Bronn?” she asked.
“You were in the audience,” I said. “Do you remember anyone clapping?”
She shook her head. “I thought that they were being complimentary. Like audiences in Japan.”
“It's not the same here,” I said. “In America, if we like a performance, we clap. If we don't like it, we boo, hiss, just walk out, or a combination of them.”
“Then it flopped?” Toshiko asked.
“Apparently,” I said.
Moments later, my cell phone rang.
I answered it. “Hello?”
“Bronn?” It was Duke, my play's male lead. “Have you read the play's review yet?”
“I just did,” I said. “So did my wife.”
I heard him softly swearing.
“We're dead,” he said. “No theater in-state or elsewhere is going to book your play. Might as well toss it in the trash and start rehearsals for a completely different play. Maybe something by Shakespeare. The reviewers usually don't attack performances of his plays.”
“As long as our group is still intact,” I said. “I hope no one has jumped ship yet.”
“How bad is it, Duke?” I asked him. “Tell me the worst rather than nothing at all.”
“We could do a one-person play,” he said. “Unless you feel up to acting again. Or your wife does or both of you do.”
I looked up at Toshiko. “Would you?” I asked her.
She looked puzzled. “Would I what?”
“Be willing to get back into acting,” I said.
“Bronn, it's been years --” she said and stopped.
I said nothing.
“Things can't be that desperate already,” she went on.
“And if they are?” I asked her.
“Could I speak with Duke?” she asked me.
I nodded and handed her the cell phone.
“Duke? Toshiko here. How bad is it?” She listened, looking more and more unhappy. “Oh dear God. And you think this is probably the only way to save the group?” She listened again. “But the theater -- it's still solvent -- or is it?” She listened again and sighed heavily. “I guess the only answer is 'yes'.”
“If he's asking what I think he's asking, my answer is also 'yes',” I said.
“The same goes for Bronn,” she said. “Do you at least have a replacement play in mind?” She listened. “Can't hurt to try. I haven't yet heard of a bad review of a performance of any of Shakespeare's plays. Maybe a bad adaptation, but not the source material. We'll need more actors, though. If necessary, I can double as the costume designer. I'll have to get my sewing machine out of storage. Just give me the designs for the costumes. In case we need to, we can also ask for costume donations or loans.” She listened again, nodded, and handed the cell phone back to me. She sat down on the couch, facing me.
“This had better be the best ever or else,” Duke told me.
“Agreed,” I said. “We'll need to get the ball rolling ASAP. I'll get back to you as soon as I can.”
I hung up and said, “I guess it could've been worse.” I sighed and shook my head.
“I think I'll also ask the high school's drama club,” Toshiko said. “They might have some spare costumes we could borrow.”
“But for which play?” I asked. “We need to pick one first. Something dependable.”
“Got any favorites?” she asked.
I thought about it. “Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and As You Like It, to name a few,” I said.
“If you had to narrow it down?” she asked. “If it was December, I'd suggest The Nutcracker. But in the middle of April?” She shrugged.
“How do you feel about playing the part of Rosalind?” I asked.
“In which play?” Toshiko replied.
“As You Like It,” I said.
“As long as you're Orlando, I'll gladly play Rosalind,” she said. “And Ganymede, of course.” She smiled. “Who knows? It might be fun. I haven't dressed like a man since I was in a high school play in Kyoto.” She saw the look on my face. “What?”
“I'm just trying to imagine you as a man,” I said. “I prefer you as a woman, though.”
“So do I,” she said. “I think I'll make that phone call right now.”
I nodded. “Hmm. I wonder if Duke would be willing to play Touchstone.”
She giggled. “And here I thought you were going to suggest Audrey. Duke in drag.” She giggled again. “This could be fun after all.”
I smiled. “It certainly won't be boring.” I dialed Duke's phone number. It rang twice before he answered. “Duke? How does As You Like It sound?”
“Pretty good actually,” he said. “I suppose Rosalind and Orlando are already taken?”
“Afraid so,” I said. “But Audrey is still available.”
Duke snorted; I tried not to laugh; Toshiko giggled again.
“Be serious, Bronn,” he said.
“All right,” I said. “What about Touchstone?”
“That could work,” he said. “And I think I know who would make an excellent Audrey.”
“Good,” I said. “Let's discuss this on-stage at the Pryor Theater tomorrow evening. Oh, and we'll need to design and print posters, and people to hand them out.”
“I'll help,” Toshiko said.
“My wife just volunteered to help,” I said. “I'll help, too.”
“So will I,” Duke said. “See you both tomorrow evening.”
I hung up.
“ 'The die is cast',” Toshiko said.
“Excuse me?” I asked. “Care to explain?”
“It's what Julius Caesar said before he and his army -- they were returning to Rome after conquering Gaul -- crossed the river Rubicon,” she said. “He would've said it in Latin, though: Alea iacta est.”
“I didn't know that Latin was taught in Japanese schools,” I said.
“Not just Latin but also History,” she said. “I do hope that you didn't think that Japan is still backward and isolated. Ever since Commodore Perry arrived in Japan, we've opened up to the outside world and modernized quite a bit. For instance, there aren't any shoguns anymore. However, there might be samurai still, but they won't be dressed in full armor. Sorry for the lecture. I'll be right back.”
Despite her apology, I deserved what she'd said prior to “Sorry”. Unlike my wife, I hadn't had to grow up as an immigrant here in America. I could only imagine the prejudices and mistreatment Toshiko and her parents had experienced. Probably much harsher than my experiences of being bullied in grade school.
I definitely owed her an apology, but how to give her one that she could believe was sincere? Something that was more than just symbolic (in other words, not just giving her flowers and/or a night out at a nice restaurant). I could only hope that I'd think of something worthwhile before tomorrow night.
SHERRY: After a local playwright's debut flopped at the Pryor Theater, the last thing I expected to see was a busy theater and posters advertising the next play, one of William Shakespeare's. If they were going down, they were going down fighting every inch of the way.
I entered the theater and looked around. There wasn't anyone in the lobby. Maybe they were rehearsing on-stage?
Walking up the ramp that connected the lobby to the audience area, I could hear American voices speaking the lines from As You Like It.
The stage had temporary props (old chairs, cardboard boxes, and the like). The actors were dressed casually in street clothes.
I walked down to the stage, up the a short flight of stairs, and headed for the person seem to be in charge. It was a tall brown-haired man, with his back to me. I tapped him on the shoulder. They immediately turned to see who it was.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I apologize for the interruption, but I saw one of your posters and was wondering if you still needed any assistance.”
“That depends,” he said. “What skills do you have?”
“I can design, build, and paint lifelike props,” I said. “For instance, the Forest of Arden.” I gestured at their temporary props. “Wouldn't you like something better than those?”
He nodded. “What did you have in mind and when can you start?”
“Immediately,” I said. “I can get whatever I need from the Ellington Junkyard.”
“You're hired,” he said. “What's your name, by the way?”
“Sherry,” I said. “Sherry Gwendolyn Jones.”
“Do you prefer being called 'Ms. Jones' or 'Sherry'?” he asked.
“ 'Sherry' is just fine,” I said.
“Pleased to meet you, then, Sherry,” he said. “My name is Bronn.” He turned to a nearby woman. “Toshiko? Meet Sherry, our new head of stage props. Sherry, this is my wife Toshiko.”
His wife and I shook hands. She looked like a first-generation Japanese immigrant. Not that I minded, because I also was an immigrant. But not from Japan.
“Do you need any help?” she asked me.
I shook my head. “I don't think so. I know a group of carpenters who are currently in between carpentry jobs. I think they'd be happy to have some work to do. I'm assuming none of these positions are paid ones?”
“Correct,” she said. “We're all volunteers. We're trying to keep this theater from closing, and if it does close, hopefully it'll only be temporary.”
“Understood,” I said.
Toshiko looked curiously at me. “Your accent --”
“Isn't American,” I said. “I was born in Wales. I moved to America a year ago, relocating to Ellington last month.”
“Hon, if you want to chat with Sherry for a little bit, that's fine,” Bronn told his wife. “But we need to get back to our rehearsal.”
“Maybe we could talk in the lobby?” I suggested.
In the lobby, unable to contain her curiosity, Toshiko asked, “What brought you?”
“To America?” I replied. “Or to Ellington and this theater in particular?”
“The latter,” she said.
“Like yourself, Toshiko-san, I follow my curiosity,” I said, “and it led me here.”
“Your timing couldn't have been better, Sherry,” she said. “Thank you for your help. By the way, you can just call me 'Toshiko'. I don't think I've done anything yet to deserve the Japanese honorific.”
“You're welcome,” I said.
“When do you think you'll have the props ready?” she asked. “Opening night is in two weeks. That isn't much time.”
“They'll be ready by then,” I said. “I'm going to start today -- just as soon as I return to my workshop.”
When I returned to my workshop in one of the older wooden buildings a few blocks from downtown Ellington, the carpenters were sitting around, looking bored. Well, I definitely had a cure for their boredom. I explained the performance schedule.
Tharos, one of the eldest, stared at me as if I'd taken leave of my senses.
“What?” I asked him. “We've had worse deadlines and still finished in time.”
“Do they even know who we are?” he asked me.
“And what we are?” he asked, pointing at himself and the other carpenters.
I shook my head. “Which is why you'll have to wear caps pulled down over the upper half of your ears. Otherwise, the people at the Pryor Theater will know you aren't human.” Silence. “I'll take that as a 'yes'. I'll get the raw materials from the Ellington Junkyard. Does anyone want to come with me?”
Two hands went up. Unsurprisingly, they belonged to Kunna and Medru.
“Good,” I said. “Tharos, you're in charge until we return. Cover all windows. Answer any phone calls professionally. No sarcasm, no jokes. Caps will be mandatory both here and everywhere else in Ellington. Any other questions?”
There weren't any.
“If anyone tries to break in while we're gone,” I went on, “you're free to use whatever means you have to discourage them or -- if that doesn't work -- dispose of them. I don't want the local police to come here, asking about missing humans. Understood?”
Kunna and Medru joined me. They already had their caps on.
“Let's go,” I told them.
We found just about everything we needed at the junkyard. The junkyard's owner was surprised and pleased that we were buying so much.
“What are you using them for?” he asked.
“We're designing and building the stage props for the next play at the Pryor Theater,” I said.
“They're not giving up, then,” he said.
“Correct,” I said.
“I'd hate to see that theater close and -- worse -- get demolished,” he said.
“Why don't you volunteer to help them?” I asked. “You could help us with the props.”
“Two weeks isn't much time,” he said.
“We're going to do our best, despite the deadline,” I said.
“I'll close the junkyard early and meet you at the theater,” he said.
I smiled. “Thank you for volunteering. They could definitely use all the help they can get.”
“I'll ask some of my friends and see if they also want to help,” he said.
“Thank you, Kyle, and please tell them 'thank you' from me,” I said.
He blinked. “Will do.”
ARIANA: My phone rang moments after I got home from work. I picked it up. “Hello?”
“Ariana, it's Kyle at the junkyard.”
I wanted to sit and relax, but I knew that he wouldn't call me if it wasn't urgent.
“What do you need?” I asked.
“The Pryor Theater is in danger of closing, maybe for good,” he said. “A bunch of us are volunteering our services to keep it open, hopefully for a long time.”
“How could I possibly help?” I asked. “I don't have any acting skills.”
“You could sell tickets outside the theater,” Kyle said. “If that isn't too difficult?”
“There's no one else available?” I asked.
“We're busier than a proverbial group of beavers,” he said. “We'd really appreciate it if you could help. Half off the admission for volunteers.”
“You don't have to bribe me,” I said.
“I wasn't sure,” he said. “Have you decided yet?”
Not really. I didn't have any other plans, except for my day job. Each evening, I mostly came home, put my feet up, and relaxed. Maybe watched some TV, maybe listen to some music.
I ran my fingers through my hair. Surprisingly, it was still pretty tidy, despite the breezes outside.
I tried to think of a reason why I couldn't help out, but nothing came to me.
“All right,” I said. “Count me in.”
He sounded relieved and happy. “Good. The initial meeting is tomorrow evening. Don't be late.”
“I'll be there,” I said.
“Thanks, Ariana,” Kyle said. “I owe you one.”
I hung up, wondering if I'd lost my mind. But I remembered reading about the fundraiser for the Hotel Dandridge. How the town had come together and how the hotel had been saved from demolition. Surely I could join in a similar effort here in Ellington. At least I wouldn't be bored.
Using the TV remote control, I changed channels to PBS. There was a documentary about the history of the Pryor Theater from when it was built over a hundred years ago to last year. The old black-and-white photographs showed a theater beautiful both inside and outside. There was even a brief interview with the late Richard Pryor the same day he'd done a comedy standup show at the theater back in the early 1980s.
“What drew you here?” the interviewer asked.
“Where else is there a theater with the same name as mine?” the comedian replied. “Even the town used to be named 'Pryor'.”
“But what if the theater had to close?” the interviewer asked.
“If I'm still alive, I'll help raise funds for it,” the comedian said. “Too many of the old and beautiful theaters are already gone. We need to save what's left as best we can.”