The one where naughty sounds assail the silence
It was circa 1995 and the school was casting for our end of term play. A musical no less. The Soul Sisters, a jazzy take on The Blues Brothers. I was assured of an appropriately glamorous role. After all I considered myself a triple threat, actor, dancer, singer, all extraordinaire, all just waiting to be unleashed on the world, in a flurry of show stopping talent that would have me scooped up and transported directly to Lupita-dom. My teachers would proudly declare in E! News documentaries, ‘From the moment she stepped on that stage, we knew she was destined for greatness. She always had that IT factor.’
Considered is the imperative word here.
I ended up getting the part of The Penguin. A droll, matronly nun who shuffled around stage in a distinctly drab long habit. Not one of the dangerous and sexy soul sisters who twisted and jazz-handed their way out of prison, leaving a wake of swooning jailbirds singing choreographed songs of heartbreak. A nun. To be honest, I would have been happier cast as Tree No 2. To my typically irrational teenage self, this had to be an extravagant ploy by my father to ensure no boy would ever be interested in me. Get thee to a nunnery! So I decided to play the hell out of the nun, lure the boys with my impressive acting talent. They’d be hanging by the tails of my habit! They wouldn’t even notice the two pouting long-legged Soul Sisters (who I will admit deserved the roles and were brilliant). I will tell you this, I killed it as The Penguin. No Nun had ever been played quite as Nun-ly. Of course the boys were still not interested.
It took two decades for me to get back on stage. A rather noisy part in the Vagina Monologues that would have put a blush on Sally’s cheeks and made a mortified Harry climb under the table. Like most things in my life, when asked if I was interested in being involved, I said yes and then thought about it later. Or actually not at all. I remember thinking as I sat on the stool, hand gripping the mike stand for support, blinded by the spotlight and sweating from unadulterated fear, either you go all out here Aleya, or you look like a complete fool. You may still look like an idiot, but at least you will do it in style. And so I shut my eyes and began. And went on. Guttural. And on. Shrill. And on. Breathless. And on. Restrained. Until finally, the triple.…for those of you who have watched the Vagina Monologues you will know exactly what I am talking about. Getting swept up in the moment, it took a while for my brain to register that instead of the deathly silence I had feared, there were the unabashed sounds of an audience who had clearly enjoyed watching me pretend to enjoy myself. It was completely disarming. And a little bit addictive. We did three more shows, and in each one, I tried to add more nuance to the sounds, more personality. I gave colour to each character. What would make this one emit this sort of sound? What’s her backstory? Why does she feel the need to contain herself? Or give directions? Or be so wanton? Why does she feel the need to do THAT? What keeps her awake at night? It is possible I got carried away. But isn’t that the mark of a true actress!! Stop rolling your eyes. I am letting you in on my artistic process. You should feel privileged, if only a little.
Unfortunately, one of the side effects was that I gained a certain reputation. I would be in official meetings, and a lady across the table would peer at me, saying over and over again, I know you from somewhere. As soon as she realised where, her face would break out into a cheeky grin, and she would say, you are The Moaner. And then wink at me in complicity. Then she’d ask for a reprisal, so that her colleagues could get a taste of what they missed. Like you can drop that variety of moans at the click of a finger! Hrmph. It took time to build up my repertoire. You can’t just switch that stuff on and off. I would blush furiously, wondering what sort of person they imagined me to be in real life. After all, it has to say something about your character that you can willingly makes those sorts of sounds in front of complete strangers. Confident, liberated and a bit of an exhibitionist or simply a shameless fool?
The Vagina Monologues is an incredibly special show, not just for those who watch it, but also those who are part of the cast. Someone once told me the monologue you most need is the one that finds its way to you. And mine was a release. For a few years I had carefully bound up the real me, wrapping her up in a bundle of rope wound over and over into a neat little package. With a sweet little bow to stop anything inappropriate from spilling out. I couldn’t behave this way. I couldn’t possibly say those things. Out loud. What would They think? Nobody forced me to do it. Not directly. Nobody said I had to be a certain way. Not out loud. I did that to myself. Because I thought this is the way you are supposed to be when you become someone’s wife. This is the way society tells you to be. In the newspapers. In the whispers among aunties. In the advice from near strangers. All subliminal. All taking place so stealthily, you hardly notice the rope winding tighter and tighter. Like a noose.
And in those moans, under that spotlight, surrounded by incredible women, something happened. The rope started unfurling and I started to tumble out. It wasn’t like a burst dam gushing and pouring out. But more a fraying. A gentle, gradual loosening, so that bits of me could poke out, gasping for air, and greedily gulping down large pockets of fresh air. The blue numbness of confinement started to fade away, giving way to a tentative flush. And thus the stage was set to pave the way for a more outspoken me. A more uninhibited me. A more reflective me. A concentrated, undiluted and definitely exhibitionist me. After all, isn’t the urge to write about yourself for complete strangers to read just a tad bit exhibitionist?
Above all, a more unapologetic me that I want to share with the world, for in the embracing of my curves and edges, perhaps it may stop one other woman from binding the real her into a constricting package of the-way-the-world-expects-her-to-be.
And for that it will be worth it.
Next – The Stage: Act One (2014)
The one where silence stills the noise