The best kind of theatre breaks down boundaries.
As chance would have it, the year that I started working at TimeLine Theatre was also the year that my grandparents moved to Chicago and into an independent living home. After two strokes and multiple surgeries between them, my grandfather bent his iron will to the pleas of his daughters and did the unthinkable: He wrote a will.
The older I’ve gotten the more afraid of my grandfather I’ve become. As a teenager I learned to walk on eggshells, skip over certain headlines in my life and go blank when he got a certain tenor in his voice. My grandfather works best with little children — when I was a little girl I thought he knew everything, and I loved him for it. It is a rare occasion that my family can sit around a table and talk about anything messy. Politics are always off the docket. Art rarely makes the cut.
A recent addition to the TimeLine staff, I was beamingly enthusiastic about the work we did. But I did not expect Wasteland. Wasteland shook me to the core. The night of the first rehearsal table read I went home with the voices of these men — boys really — haunting me. Their questions, their aches, the long silences that filled up with the weight of an entire country. I thought: This is how theatre can change us.
For the first time since I was a little girl I asked my grandfather to teach me something.
I asked it without pride or embarrassment. I asked him to tell me about Vietnam. Over Thanksgiving I sat with him and listened to him explain what errors he felt we had made in getting into the war, how butchered we had left the history books in trying to explain it. My grandfather always thinks he knows the best way to tell a story.
Going to see Wasteland was to be the first big outing since their move here. I raved about the show to everyone, but the closer their trip to see it drew, the more disclaimers I worried I should make. My grandparents like MGM musicals. They think All in the Family is crass enough. I worried I should have eased them in with 33 Variations.
I wanted my grandparents to love this show as much as I do. And I was nervous. This is a not a show that lets you sit back and watch. When you are in this play you are in it, not outside of it. Wasteland is a play that does not allow us as an audience to rise up out of that hole for one second and see what might be coming for our boys. Because we are all in that hole. We all have been.
I kept glancing at my grandfather during the show. For the first time I felt like I might be seeing things through his eyes — a young boy, bright, determined, all odds stacked against him but still chock-full of vim and vigor to spare. I wondered what side of the wall he would be on then — and what side now.
This was the first play we’ve ever watched together.
Mostly my grandparents wanted to talk about the acting afterward — I think because they know that’s what I love. But I wanted to talk about the history, because that was theirs. For the first time I didn’t care about whether or not my grandfather would think I was smart or successful enough. I didn’t care that I had cried in front of him during the ending scene, or that we had listened to the word “fuck” more times than he considered necessary in mixed company. I cared that he was here with me. I cared that my family stood in the lobby amidst the newspaper clippings and reconstructed the past together.
My dad and uncle remembered how the draft was ended the year before my dad turned 18. My grandmother told us that nothing has changed since then. I’ve heard that from a lot of patrons who have walked through our doors — things haven’t changed. And maybe, in the global scheme of things, they haven’t. I’d like to think they have, or will the more we learn. But, I certainly can’t be sure. And sometimes the best you can do is send out a signal and hope that someone gets it.
I can only measure my own life. Of course my grandfather hadn’t changed his mind about the war — that one, or the one we are in now. But we stood and talked about something meaningful for 15 minutes more than I have with him in years. He held my hand and let me ask him questions about what a piece of theatre had meant to him without judgment. And I listened, really.
History is the great divider between people, especially families. Art is the equalizer.
There has been a wall between my grandfather and myself for years. Bringing him to this show was one of the best ways I knew to push back on that wall a bit.
Jessamyn joined TimeLine’s front-of-house staff as House Manager in August 2012.