A gleaming drum kit in front of a large wooden cross – right where I would usually set up my wooden crates… ‘Bert Brocklesby and the COs’ might sound like an early rock ‘n’ roll band – but they weren’t. What they were was a band of determined pacifists.
Then I notice that the drums are sitting on a square of carpet.
‘Julie, if we’re VERY careful, can we pull that carpet with the kit on it over to the side here?’ She has a long, hard think.
‘I guess.’ We do it.
‘And might there be anything to cover the drum kit with?’
‘There’s a large cloth you could use.’
‘Oh great. Is it black? White?’
‘Green will be…just fine.’
The usual teething troubles are present while setting up sound but once sorted, all is good to go. Greg Yoder, a very pleasant and helpful young Mennonite, will operate the cues – but not before he runs out to grab us some (amazing) bagels.
I am given a microphone looped round my ear for this echoey space. But it keeps slipping and distracting me, though it doesn’t seem to bother the 100 or so folk who turn up for the show. Apart from one – who introduces himself to me afterwards as Ted Swartz. He’s an actor who in fact will be spending 3 months on a residency in Durham in the UK later this year. We promise to try and meet up at some point.
‘That mic though – are you using it on the whole tour?’ he asks. ‘You need to get it sorted.’ I reassure him (and myself) that it will be staying in Harrisonburg – along with the drum kit.
At the end of the evening, we pack up the crates and slide the kit back into place in front of the cross. Apparently there is a funeral in the church in the morning. (Surely not with accompanying drums and hi-hat cymbals, though?)
Tonight Bill and I are lodging at the local Sleep Inn – though we don’t. Sleep in, that is – as we have to get up at 6.30am to visit the school we were due to be at two days earlier if it hadn’t snowed. I’m told I’m taking two classes, the first being at 8am – ( ‘Bloomin’ ‘eck’, I think to myself) – and there will also be chapel. Which I assume we’re being invited to attend along with most of the school.
‘No,’ a teacher informs me. ‘You ARE chapel. Chapel is you.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The presentation you’ll be giving with extracts from your play.’
(This is news to me…)
So I give 3 x thirty minute sessions that morning and early afternoon about my play and the subject of conscientious objection. More demanding (almost) than doing the play itself. After the lessons, one of the teachers, Elwood Yoder (no relation to yesterday’s Greg), shows me an article about his grandfather – who was an American WW1 religious CO.
He was badly beaten for refusing to wear uniform, so much so that he suffered spinal damage. He was later put in a ‘sweat-box’ (made of wood with just a couple of vents), the temperature being nearly 100 degrees that day. He was to knock on the side of the box if and when he was ready to comply.
I am struck by the parallels with one of the COs I portray in the play- confined in a 10 feet deep pit in the heat of summer.
Elwood’s grandfather endured five hours before they let him out of the box. But he hadn’t knocked. One morning 35 years later, he was reading the paper. A policeman had been shot in the stomach – though not fatally. Looking at the front-page picture, Elwood’s grandfather realised he recognised the man. He had been one of the soldiers who had persecuted him 35 years earlier.
Elwood’s grandfather got in his car and drove the fifty miles or so to the hospital, enquired after the policeman, was taken to his ward – where, when the recuperating man learned who this stranger actually was, and how he had driven all this way to visit and pray with him – he broke down and sobbed helplessly. Thus long-borne wounds were healed, and two men were reconciled. I am hugely grateful to Elwood for sharing such a moving personal story with me.
After my final class, Bill drives us back to Maryland and his house for a brief night, before we set off on the Saturday morning to that day’s venue – New York City!
My only previous visit to the States was 20 years ago – and that was just 5 days in New York. And on that occasion I arrived at night by plane. This time, approaching the city in daylight, by car, I can’t help feeling a thrill, a ‘tingle in my bones’, as I see that iconic, unmistakeable skyline drawing ever nearer.
We exit the Holland Tunnel and are soon amidst the towering skyscrapers, driving eastwards through narrow streets. We approach an intersection and my eyes light upon the street sign. There’s no mistaking what it says.
‘We’re here!’ I think to myself. ‘At last! 40 years in the acting profession and FINALLY I’m on Broadway!!’
But Bill keeps driving eastwards, while I turn back and wistfully watch Broadway receding, as we make our way across town to the 15th Street Friends Meeting House. Don’t get me wrong – I’m pretty excited about performing there, hosted by the New York Quakers.
But as far as Broadway is concerned? I guess my destiny was to perform (as I did, just four weeks ago) in Broadway, UK, a Cotswold village – and not on Broadway, NYC.
Am I bothered? Of course I’m not.
The British COs of WW1 have led me all the way to New York, but on their terms – not those of the razzle-dazzle of show business.