Wednesday, June 22, 2016

the education of jada hernandez

Sean*, an actor--who is around thirty-something or other--came in to coach a scene of the play, and I watched him interact with Jada*, a student, who was understudying for the lead actress. This was just a rehearsal, but nevertheless, the thrill of understudying flushed Jada's cheeks.

There is nothing more desirable or glamorous than understudying. Understudying is the ultimate Cinderella story. Particularly when you are a young woman who is competent and responsible, and therefore always ending up on the tech or backstage crew instead of onstage.

For young hearts that thirst for the limelight, the thrill of being put up onstage with little warning, and then dazzling the crowd, understudying is the ultimate catnip. It is the embodiment of the idea that anyone can be given a shot, and even if you are just one of the props crew, you, too, have a shot at stardom.

It was a joy to see how much delight she got in simply sitting in for the lead in a rehearsal. But the pathos of her girlish enthusiasm and her hope tugged at the heartstrings. How I remember being Jada's age, and wishing that I would be seen as more than just a responsible young woman. How I wanted to be a Performer, Captial P, with a flourish at the end.

As I watched this scene unfold, I was struck by another memory. The actor playing opposite Jada is a young teenage boy, Brandon*, who has plenty of city swagger about him, and confidence in his ability to woo any young lady. Whenever Brandon gets on stage, however, he loses his flirtatious façade, and becomes a gentle and generous scene partner. When they get are on stage, children reveal to you mostly what they are. If they are good, kind, shy, insecure, they usually show that to you in one way or the other. Particularly class clowns, who are raucous braggadocios in class, freeze so often on the stage. Their pretense dropped, they stand before you, vulnerable and unsure.

This is partially what is afflicting Brandon. But, also, we have cast Brandon as a British baron, and he is not a British baron. Brandon may be a lot of things, but he is not a world-weary, brandy-guzzling, extremely wealthy, entitled SWM. And there is a particular way that world-weary, brandy-guzzling, entitled SWMs approach the world, particularly how they approach women. Brandon hasn't really yet captured that essence the way that Colin Firth or Christopher Plummer do.

In an effort to help this young actor flirt like entitled SWMs flirt, the older actor, Sean, takes over the scene for several moments, acting opposite of Jada. Sean has, of course, watched at least one adaptation of an Austen novel, and has read Trollope, so he is aware of how British barons flirt, and he is damn good at it. He sweeps across the stage, and hovers above Jada's chair. He touches her arm. I see her blush. The scene progresses. He stands behind her. I can see her cheeks grow red, as she feels the warmth from his closeness radiating around her.
He touches her hair. Her blush and smile are one.

I watch Jada, and I wonder if I should do anything. Say anything. As I watch Sean demonstrate to Brandon how to kiss Jada's hand, I am half torn between the pain of old memories, and a sense of betrayal, as I watch emotions flicker across her face which I remember so vividly occurring inside of me.

One reality is true: there is an inequality here. Sean is a thirty-something father of young girls, and Jada is a young, impressionable teenage girl. Impressionable, which is defined as "easily influenced because of a lack of critical ability." In the context of teenagers, impressionable means: "absorbing the world around them so intensely, it affects them in ways it does not affect others."

The way that young people touch each other is different than the way this older man touches this young girl without her permission. This is not the insecure flirting of novice teenagers, it is an interaction with a clear imbalance: a man who knows exactly what he's doing, and a girl who has much, much less experience.

She senses the dangerous impossible contained in it. He senses it, too, but he can hide behind his superiority. Older men can hide behind the narratives of avuncular affection or elder-brotherly love. They can affect an emotional reaction in a young girl that they have no accountability for. They can dodge responsibility for the feelings their actions arouse.

Perhaps this is an experience unique to young women in theatre, or the arts, where people are freer with their bodies and their feelings, at least in stereotype, and most likely in fact. But there was a clear imbalance I never noticed when I was in Jada's shoes, but is quite clear from mine.

Through the lens of Jada's blush, I saw touches, casual brushes, hair-ruffling all anew. And I blushed with Jada, and was sad.

Perhaps it is just the collateral damage of being a Sensitive Young Woman, but it seems to me that there is a theme that I have found--in my own and others' stories--of older men representing to younger women a critical moment: a moment of discovery.

Perhaps, sometimes, that's no one's fault. Just a natural chemical reaction of one youngster full of lots of blood and growth, in a body that they still are scared of, susceptible to the smallest touch, and one older person, more jaded and cavalier with their body they know much better.

But perhaps, what I saw from my seat in the audience, was my own naïve blood burn my cheeks and my irrevocable teenage ignorance of power, because I had none.

*names changed

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