So, when it comes down to the top 10 moments of my life…This one is definitely in the top three.
When I was a freshman in high school, I was way big into the drama department. And yes, when I say I was way big into the drama department, I mean I was a never-been-kissed, zit-covered bassoon player who had two boobs that were different sizes.
At my high school, there were two productions a year: In the fall – a big, fun, laugh-a-minute musical. And in the spring – a serious, “Just because we’re kids doesn’t mean we don’t understand the world” One-Act Play. The musical my Freshman year was “My Fair Lady” in which I made my dramatic debut as “Cockney Girl #3.” That spring, the One-Act-Play was “Playing for Time” by Arthur Miller. I’m not kidding here – “Playing for Time” was originally a film about a group of Jewish women in Auschwitz who were kept alive because of their musical ability and were ordered to play orchestral pieces for the other Jewish women who were held in the concentration camp waiting for their demise. To keep moral up. It’s honestly a beautiful and true story about a very brave group of women, originally portrayed by legendary actresses such as Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Alexander. It was to be adapted later into a play by the iconic playwright Arthur Miller. So, we thought…hmmm. Why not throw it to a bunch of 15-year-old Christians, cut the budget down to 55 bucks, and butcher the script into a nice, little 40-minute chunk of “If you cry we’ve done our job” theater?
Okay, this is where it gets good. So, in order to play these women we obviously had to shave our heads because most of the women in Auschwitz were forced to shave their hair off. Obviously we weren’t going to do this because…you know…there’s a limit. It was literally two months before the Band Banquet. So what did we do? We all got skull caps and then put cheap wigs over the skull caps. We had to put the wigs on because the play started at the moment we were thrown on the train.
Okay, the play: Scene One-Being Thrown On The Train
Spotlight on an empty stage in front of a closed curtain. The sound of a train is blasting on overhead sound system. Where are the girls? WE ARE OUT IN THE AUDIENCE! WE ARE SPREAD OUT AND SITTING IN THE FUCKING AUDIENCE BECAUSE IT COULD HAPPEN TO ANYONE!!! One by one, we rush onto the stage and then throw ourselves into the spotlight and start shaking collectively – cause we are on a train.
Then, the curtain opens onto a bleak set. AUSCHWITZ! A Nazi Officer enters from stage left and forces us to line up in front of a make-shift scrim with a light behind it. One-by-one we are made to sit behind the scrim, but in front of the light so all the audience sees it our outline. Another Nazi stands behind us and “shaves our heads.” Meaning, he makes a shaving motion and then discreetly takes off our cheap wigs and deposits them into a dairy crate. When the actresses come out on the other side of the scrim, we are bald. Each shaving was only to take a maximum of three seconds cause time was an issue. Then we were supposed to congregate together and look at each other in shock and sadness.
Okay – OPENING NIGHT! Everything went according to plan for the first 2.5 minutes. The audience was totally surprised that the oppressed Jewish citizens were sitting next to them. (Especially since the lights were only half dimmed as the show started so we could find our assigned seats marked “RESERVED” and entered from the front of the auditorium and sat down next to them.) Train ride went well. And then the time came for the head shaving. I was, of course, Jewish Girl #2. So…one of the first to go through the line. Everything went exactly according to plan. I went behind the scrim, sat down and 3-4 seconds later I arose, stripped of my cheap wig. The other girls came through behind me. We were acting our freaking asses off and we looked so bald. It was a moment of poignant recognition that we portrayed to the audience by mouthing “Why?” over and over again and wiping feigned tears from our adolescent cheeks.
Then, all of the sudden, one of the girls (Jewish Girl #6) came out of the scrim with her wig…still on!! Evidently, she got excited with opening night jitters and didn’t give the Nazi guy enough time to take off the wig.
So, from the audience’s point of view, she went behind the scrim, got her head shaved, and then came out with a full head of hair. We all looked at her with wide eyes and whispered loudly, without moving our mouths, “IT’S STILL ON!!” She reached up, felt her head and with horror, realized her mistake. I could see her brain working furiously as she tried to figure out what to do next. Should she just take it off and throw it behind the curtain? Or go through the play as one of the lucky Jews who got to keep their hair? So, here’s what she decided:
She turns to the audience and, completely breaking the 4th wall, she makes a “Can you believe this shit?” gesture. Like she was Jerry Seinfield. Half shrug, half laugh. Then, she slaps her hands to her side and shaking her head SHE FUCKING MARCHES BACK TO THE BACK OF THE FUCKING LINE!!!! She stands there in the shaving line with her arms folded and taps her toe to convey impatience. They run her through the scrim again, this time effectively removing her wig, and she comes out on the other side of the curtain. Then, she turns to the group of us, and makes a grand gesture to insinuate the idea of “Finally!”
She totally took it to her own level. She effectively translated the sacredly portrayed image of “Here is a woman being stripped of her life and identity” into “Fucking Bureaucracy.” But here is the best part. HERE IS THE BEST PART! When she finally came through the scrim the second time, stripped and bald…The Audience Clapped! They applauded her willingness to get the job done. And during those few seconds of sporadic clapping and, yes, a few muffled laughs; they recognized themselves. They thought to themselves “Remember that time at the DMV when I waited for 25 minutes only to find out that I had filled out the wrong form….I get this.”
Because it could happen to anyone.