Wednesday, May 24, 2006

tea and sympathy

"What teas do you have?" she asks our waitress. "No chamomile? Okay, mint, please." Her voice is normal by most people's standards, but most people's standards are a lot lower than hers. No brunchtime mimosa for Kisha. Citric acid means aggravating a scratchy throat, which jeopardizes any auditions she might go on this week. Not that she has any scheduled right now, but a working actress always needs to be prepared.

For me, being prepared means making sure my cell phone is charged and that Sadie has not hacked a furball on whatever black pants I dig from the closet. For Lakisha, it means evaluating how today's breakfast drink could impact her career.

"So how is it going?" my mother asks. My mother has adored Lakisha ever since the two of us raised hell in our high school choir and got away with it because of Kisha's talent and my smartassness. Because both of her two daughters considered and ultimately rejected theater as a profession, Mom has a lot of pent-up worry about show biz that she now channels to Kisha.

"Well..." Lakisha pokes at the lemon slice floating in her mint tea. "Pretty good. My show finished this week and I have some auditions coming up. I might do a workshop this summer, but since it will be unpaid I'll find other stuff. And of course I'm auditioning a lot."

"Pounding the pavement." Mom smiles with as best an understanding she can muster for how hard it must be.

"Oh yeah, we spend probably eighty percent of the time auditioning," she replies. "But you can never predict how it'll turn out. Like for the last show I did, the director told me I had it from the start even though I was practically dead from strep. Like when I was auditioning for colleges-- EJ, remember?"

I nod. I do remember. I'd already gotten into college and had unofficially quit high school, while Kisha kept plugging away at dance and voice and dieting and exercise and scene studies. Working ten times as hard as everyone else, never asking for favors or sympathy, and still not getting to where she deserved to go.

"And other times, you think you've nailed it and it just... doesn't happen." She mentions an audition for a national touring company that she had almost two years ago. It would have kickstarted her career. She didn't get it, and it's still with her. Mom and I nod in sympathy, both of us unsure of what to say next.

She was always so light and free-spirited. Completely positive and the opposite of self-conscious. She wore goofy like nobody else could because she was little and beautiful and enormously talented. She's still all of those things, but the goofiness is gone.

Some of it has to be age. Losing the loose limbs and freedom from responsibility that comes with being a teenager. What once we passed as charming would now raise eyebrows of concern. I do a lot of things better now than I did at fifteen, but being free and silly is not one of them.

Yet still. It's more than age. She's spent four years preparing for this and two years in the business, and the change in her is palpable. She's still beautiful and smiles easily, but no longer grins. Her face wears the rejection it has seen.

Every day we are rejected in little ways. Whether it is for a seat on the subway, a conversation with a boss, by a stranger in a bar or a lover who is too tired to whatever, everyone faces someone who sizes them up and says "No. Not here. Not now." Most of the time it's subtle enough that we don't realize it, or are able to call it something gentler. Lakisha doesn't get that luxury. When she hears "no," it is rejection on many levels. Her looks. Her talent. Her ability to make a living.

She's one of the lucky ones. She's barely had to wait tables or temp. She's only been at it for two years. She's talented enough to make it. Most of all, she has the passion for it. She loves her craft enough that love of it will sustain her through hard times. But talent and passion will only take her so far, and she knows it. Luck has to come in somewhere, and there's no telling if and when it will rear its head.

Later we're strolling down 7th Avenue towards Times Square. I have to catch a train back to DC and she has to be at Wicked to sell souvenirs to the gawkers. She tells me about a temp job she had in an office. "It was so nice to be able to sit and read email and just be normal. Sometimes I really wish I had that all the time, like you do."

"The grass is always greener, isn't it," I say. It's not a question; it's an observation.


I'd love to ask her a million questions. She's living a life that I once dreamed of having and is a part of a world that I, like a breathless groupie, am geeked about. She knows and works with people I read about in the New York Times and Broadway websites. She is blase about actors and projects that make me giddy.

But she's blase because she has to be. Because to her, it's all just another day at the office. Because to care too much about the glitz distracts from the brutal, hard work that she must do. And so instead of prying questions, I silently offer her a little sympathy with her tea. Even though she would never ask for it.

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