The show is over and Maryam Francis sits on the floor, legs crossed with animated hand gestures, a pow-wow of actors around her as though they are her apostles. They pass joints and bottles of wine. Her hair is almost an angelic white and unkempt. She blows loose strands out of her face, touches others on the shoulders, nods in agreement, rifles up to her feet occasionally while in the sonic moments of telling a story, and laughs with ease and laughs often.
When I introduce myself, she is finishing up an anecdote on her third husband, saying, “I told him, I told him well shit Rupert, I didn’t buy you the truck so you could stay. Get in it and get. Go on get on out of here.”
She waits, in perfect timing, as though her entire life is a choreographed act and she is always performing, “He thought it was the best Christmas present ever. Then I kicked his ass out. I didn’t even have the heart to tell him, ‘Oh yeah I’m taking half your money too!’”
She holds out her hand to me and helps herself up, kisses me on the cheek and calls me her long lost son. With that, I am welcomed and ushered in as family.
Her hand on my shoulder now as speaks, “Problem with Rupert now is he made feel like it was time to grow up. I was sixty by the time I met him and I hain’t grown up by then and I ain’t grown up still.
“My mama used to always tell me, that a woman needs a man. It’s not so, I only want a man, until I don’t. But I never needed one. A lot of advice you hear over the years, pure bullshit. People giving it just wanna tell you how to be like them. If anybody ever asks me my advice, I let em know all my regrets. And I’ve had plenty. Most of them sprouted from listening to other people.”
She walks with a cane, a certain folksy wisdom in her strut, a drunken prophetess almost.
Covering her eyes are a pair of star shaped, green and pink tinged sunglasses, the same pair she wore on the cover of Life’s a Stage Magazine, forty years ago.
She was born on a farm in Leotie, Georgia, the daughter of reverend and schoolteacher and the youngest of eight siblings. No running water. As she tells it, her daily chore was cleaning out the outhouse.
“I only ever believed in God because it was on His day that I didn’t have to clean up shit.”
She turned her hands of labor into the hands that have touched the stars.
On evenings, when her family was too busy or too tired to watch her perform her one act shows, she’d stand underneath the shining constellations and before the animals—pigs, cows, mules and dogs—and recite monologues written by Shakespeare, John Locke and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to completion, and then, by the age of thirteen, the speeches she’d written on her own.
We go to her dressing room for a brief interview and she plays old country and blues records from the 30’s and 40’s and pours me a whiskey. On the wall are photographs of all those who have acted with her or for her.
She shushes me frequently, pointing to the record player and speaking from the gut when she says, “I love this part.” She shuts her eyes and goes into memory, as if preparing for a role. “I wanted to be a singer so bad. I just wanted to drink champagne, get stoned. Eat barbecue and sing country blues. All the other time I’d spend in the bathtub with a man. Or a woman!”
Almost all her plays she’s written and starred in. She’s had opportunities in Hollywood and on Broadway, but for reasons of simplicity and freedom, she’s stayed in Atlanta while traveling the country for cheap pay.
“It’s what I love. If I stayed in Hollywood I’d have killed myself. A swimming pool to drown in, rolls Royce to crash in. I was out there long enough to consider however many ways there are to kill yourself.”
She’s expressed herself in an Odysseus type of life, both on and off the stage.
She’s written nearly fifty works, from a musical about the Revolutionary War based off the works of Bethoveen, an opera on Delta Bluesman, and a simple four character play in which an inmate delivers the most powerful soliquey I’ve ever read and seen performed before hanging herself.
Her theater company travels the country, performing in colleges to a near empty auditorium, small town theaters, people’s homes, cruise ships, even prisons. One occasion a cell mate impregnated her and she debated long and hard on whether or not keep it when the fate was decided by a misscarisge.
Her works and itself are no stranger to the strange itself, dark humor and disturbing moments.
“When I was young, I wanted a puppy more than anything in the world. For my seventh birthday came home with one. It got hit by a car and was dying. My father pulled out his rifle and handed it to me.”
I waited for her to hesitate, maybe cry. Instead she smiles gracefully, like remembering her first beer.
She tells me she loved it. “I can’t explain. I felt like God.”
Her new play, Mama of Christ explores the early life through the teenage years of Jesus raised by a mean and backwoods, hillbilly mother.
In the story, God, who we never see, has left for a pack of cigarettes and never comes back.
Francis plays the titular character, and performs as she has done with each role, as though she was born for it.
She instills in Jesus all the character traits that will make him the almighty father of Christianity, and refers to God as that no-good father of your’n.
And even encourages Jesus to study Buddhism. “Always trust a fat boy with a smile,” the mother of God tells her seventeen year old son, “They’ve likely figured it all out.”
The show has been received as most of her works has, with mixed reviews but mostly ill-written criticism.
When asked if she reads the reviews, she says, “I only read classic literature. Everything else just hardly ain’t worth a damn.
She’s working on three new projects now. She’ll tour the States again, middle schools.
She giggles, “We know we’ll have good attendance. They’re forced to come see it.”
It’s three in the morning and we’re still talking, sipping Jack Daniels from her theater company coffee cups when I discover Maryam Francis is the mother we never had, a song and dance woman, always learning, always heading somewhere, always laughing and always discovering.
She’s at the age now where she should be put in a nursing home and being taken care of but she’s instead taking care of American Arts. Let the others rest, she tells me.
She glows as though she’s pregnant and takes off her sunglasses. Ruby and silver eyes.
“I’ve come a long way on my way home,” she says. “Still there’s a lot of walking left. And I won’t rest ‘til I get there.”