The Story In My Head:
I was at the pinnacle of my acting career, on a meteoric rise to stardom, in 1987, when I was offered my dream role. The lead in the 500-year celebration play of Bartholemew Diaz. Although I was a young girl, I was not only a limitlessly talented actress, but also had the presence of mind to know that playing a man would stretch my acting skills to the sinew, possibly earning me an Oscar. I, obviously, had a premonition of what would happen to Hillary Swank years later. The role included a solo aria, something I knew I could do.
So I took it, and rehearsed and rehearsed, burning the midnight oil, perfecting my pitch, embracing the emotion of being a Portuguese explorer discovering Africa – the highs, the lows, the drama of scurvy. I read all the books to really ‘get into’ my part, spending days ‘in character’. Until it was perfect.
Opening night arrived, and I meditated my nerves away, shutting myself in my dressing room to ready myself for the packed house I’d be playing to. My supporting cast and I took our places behind the velvet curtains, listening to the sounds of the people in the audience taking their places, feeling the thrill. The place was packed, the stalls filled with important people. The house-lights dimmed and the audience subsided into whispers, the anticipation palpable.
The curtains opened, the stage lights came up and I was Bartholomew Dias for an hour and a half. The audience were stunned into silence by my talent, my voice reducing many to tears. The play ended and the audience jumped from their seats, yelling with wild abandon, a standing ovation to beat any other. The stage filled with roses as I returned for my second encore and the press cameras flashed.
It was 1989, small-town South Africa, at my small town South African primary school. It was also the 500-year anniversary of Bartholomew Diaz’s rounding our shores, so what better story to use for the end-of-year play? But who to cast in the role of the man himself? No normal auditions for this school, nosiree. They just picked me. Why? Because I had a nice little bob hairstyle, as all good explorers of the 1400’s had. Oh, and I sang in the choir so would probably be okay to sing one verse of “Guide me, Oh thou Great Jehovah” on my own, before being joined by the chorus.
We practiced for at least two weeks before, on a Monday and Wednesday, during the half-hour period that should’ve been Health or RE (Religious Education – this was the ’80’s), I can’t remember which.
The end of year concert night arrived and my mother fed us early dinner of fish fingers after blow-drying my bob into perfect 1400-explorer style. We all bundled into the car for the two minute drive to the school and I rushed off to Mr V’s class (our very sweet, vaguely alcoholic, Maths teacher who had a knack of recognising extraordinary children for their extraordinariness, something that was not common those days, in a conservative small town) which was closest to the school hall, and was thus the Dressing Room for the evening.
It was filled with twittering, over-excited 12-year olds like myself and we worked ourselves up into bursting excitable nervousness while the local beautician (one of the kid’s mom) ‘did’ our make-up. Read: gave us mascara and some eye pencil and, in my case, a moustache drawn on with said eye pencil. Then we trooped off to the school hall, which was packed to capacity with familiar faces.
It was filled with our families and friends, people we’d grown up with in this small town, people who knew our names and, many of whom knew our birthdays, shoe sizes and best friends. The seats were filled, the floor between the stage and seats was overflowing with the smaller kids, cross-legged, and chewing on rustling packets of Simba chips. A mad hum of chatting filled the hall.
The hall lights were switched off and there was sudden darkness, except for the stage lights and we began. Our 20-minute tale of a brave Portuguese sailor charting unknown waters, played by a pre-adolescent me, singing my heart out for the first verse and then joining the choir.
I can’t remember if there was actually a standing ovation. There probably was, though. Small towns are, well, very community-orientated and supportive. There was definitely applause, and plenty of it. Our families loved us.
And there really were press flashes. Two. We were in the next week’s Herald, on page 3, all 25 of us on stage, bravely looking 1400-explorer-ish.
Delusions of grandeur, me? Never.