One of the first people I told that a poem of mine would appear in Kansas City Voices was “Big Tall” Jim Gall. A Kansas City native, Jim was then playing the role of Slim—magnificently—in the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of Of Mice and Men; I was playing Lennie. Jim’s a regular at Kansas City Rep, returning yearly to play the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol. “Can you feel the world shrinking?” I wrote to poetry co-editor Maril Crabtree, as I told her about Jim—and the fact that I’d played the very same Dickens Ghost no fewer than six times for Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre!
An epigraph precedes “Lost Love Blues,” the poem of mine appearing in Kansas City Voices—a brilliant remark by blues icon “Big Bill” Broonzy, who was hitting his stride with Bluebird Records in 1937, when Of Mice and Men was published. The Seattle Rep communications staff, meanwhile, had asked me to write something…
“On Playing an Icon”
Funny thing about icons—we all know them, yes, but for all their ubiquity it’s a long arm’s length at which we hold them. Half an analogy: the moon yields much, when invited, to a telescope. This only, however, of its surface; what of what lies underneath? And science would yield much in this regard, in the cases of both Lennie and the moon. But the moon is, on average, 238, 857 miles away, and Lennie is an icon.
This is where the imagination comes into play: the text provides the surface; what lies underneath it bubbles up through the surface in the rehearsal hall, and impels the choices that lead toward an interpretation.
Because of that long arm’s length at which an icon is held, one’s immersion into what is actually there, in the text, affords rich surprise. The task, after all, is the same as with any role in any play. Once one is given over to the nut-and-bolts of scene-work, of building with one’s colleagues the arc of the story, with its often violent confluence and refraction of motives, any concerns about iconography slip away, are dissolved into one’s sheer appetite for the work, like a calorie-count at Thanksgiving dinner.
In my conversations with people who work with folks facing the challenges Lennie faces, I am repeatedly, fiercely admonished that beneath a social surface—of rhythms, comprehension and memory—that differs from ours and betrays what appear to be limitations, the fires that burn and the complications that arise are one and the same. Don’t you dare sell him short, they seem to say—and not because he’s an icon, but because he’s very much flesh and blood.
Yearning. Anger. Fear of abandonment. Delight in the world of the senses. Sound familiar? Icons themselves, these are; rooted by this play in the fertile soil of the particular, and no further away than our skin.
*On Playing an Icon” originally appeared on the Seattle Repertory Theatre website/blog in February/March 2011.
–Charles Leggett’s poetry can currently be found online at Barnwood Press (mag; “Great Finds” series) and Liquid Imagination (Issue #10).
Be sure to check out “Love Lost Blues” in the latest edition of Kansas City Voices. Order your copies here.