ON LAURIE AND THE OWL
(This excerpt from Act II, Scene 4, The Aesthetic/Breath follows sections of an interview that sings the praises of the late Laurie Carlos, actor, teacher, mentor, visionary and friend)
At 3:00 am on the night of ‘Yoruba Aesthetics and the Practice of Theatrical Jazz’ an owl starts to hoot outside my window. It’s the first time ever hearing an owl in the backyard filled with tall pine trees. Immediately I feel a presence. I know it's Laurie. I scan the bedroom. I don’t see her and I can see her at the same time, it's not a vision, it's her presence.
“You can't write this stuff down” and she starts to laugh her exuberant laugh that reminds us we're all supposed to be laughing more often. ‘Not being able to write this stuff down’ is what she said to Omi Osun about documenting the practice of Theatrical Jazz. Laurie is right, it is an oral tradition of the African diaspora and is properly passed on elder to apprentice through generations. It must be written down anyway. We are not an exclusive people, it's one of our many saving graces, so this genre lives side by side as orature and literature. It is the same impulse as our thriving as creative collectives and adoring individual geniuses, like Laurie. Her presence sits on the end of the bed, feels warm, a sister visiting. There's weight on the mattress without the imprint of anyone's body.
“It's all about the body you know” she says, “That's the magic, that's the key. There’s the truth.”
Her ability to read the body is legendary. She was an uncompromising acting coach, taking you farther than you intended to go with compassion and wit. Insisting that you access your breath, your life force. Your Ase`.
The last time we worked together Laurie was a guest artist in my Devised Theater class, recalling her entrance into my studio I have the image of walking medicine. One of the students remarked “It's like all of her came into the room, she just walked across the floor and that’s what was happening.”
Laurie had the class sit in a circle with their legs outstretched. “Put your vaginas on the floor” she instructed, the male students looked around quickly as though they had missed a very important cue and then with small smiles put their vaginas on the floor. “That's it.” she said, and they seemed relieved to have satisfied this very exacting and very unusual teacher.
Side note - Laurie loved sex, sex stories, jokes and banter. Never missed a beat, never missed an opportunity to laugh, to be alive.
“Is this a dream?” I ask Laurie’s familiar presence hanging out in my bedroom in the wee hours.
“If you need me to be, you decide.”
Dream or not, I promise myself it doesn't make any difference. Just listen.
“No one can give you what you already have. Stop playing small, this is not a small story.”
In a few words she has nails my unresolved tug of war between wanting to be invisible and wanting to be seen. I once asked Laurie about a reference in the book Black Women Writers at Work (1950-1980) where Ntozake mentions how actors fuel her writing process naming Avery Brooks, Laurie Carlos and Judy Brown.
“Who's Judy Brown?” I ask Laurie. She just looks at me. “Don't be stupid, that’s you.”
We talked about being young actors performing at the Public Theater New York before Laurie created the role of Lady in Blue, her legendary performance in for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enough. By then I had moved to Louisville and eventually on to many other places. “Bitch” Laurie said, “you went and left us in New York.”, with a stinging sideswipe compliment she identified me as one of her own, part of a miraculous tribe of artists that don't know any better than to be ourselves. Our whole selves.
Years later while teaching in my Devised Theater studio she spoke about how society takes away our ability to say ‘No’ at two years old. She noted the danger of telling a toddler who knows exactly what they want that they are a ‘A Terrible Two’ because they say ‘No.’
“You need to get that back” Laurie tells the students.
Her words are prophetic.
I cannot overestimate how reclaiming one's ‘No’ will serve all of us in the days to come. My primary teaching to young artists is to breathe. Now, more urgently than ever, number two is “Take back your ‘No’”. Laurie, ahead of the curve.
We would shake our heads hearing comments from Laurie’s admirers about her stellar work onstage “She would have been famous if she was a white woman.” Laurie did what she did precisely as a Black woman. A Free Black woman. A proclamation Laurie shared generously with younger sisters in the theater. Her words became an anointing; the next generation heard the truth. They are Free Black Women.
“You know you're going to have to perform. It's time to go back on stage. You have to be seen.”
I just give in, who can resist Carlos as she is called by those close to her. She’s already scoped you out, watched your true desires flicker across the map of your body. Ready or not your soul is bare. She can admonish you with such love that you are spinning, twirl you around and make you face yourself full on. Face yourself with compassion that allows you to take the next step and the next step and the next.
“And call those people and tell them to fix your name, your name is Judy Brandt. No Judy Brown. Clear that mess up.”
The late-night hooting owl only returns once again months later, comes just to remind me of Laurie’s joyful message: “I am all up in this. I am all over this. I am.”