I had the good fortune to graduate from Mt. St. Mary Academy where, to this day, arts as well as sciences are equally valued as integral parts of a high school education. That fact is underscored not only in the classroom, but in extracurricular activities, one of the most prominent being my alma mater’s annual senior play.
The play that my class of ‘69 staged was the wonderfully romantic, Lerner and Loewe's, "Brigadoon." It was a memorable experience on a number of levels, which has kept the musical close in my heart ever since.
Recently, I was reminded of my youthful thespian experience as my granddaughter and I celebrated her 13th birthday. For years we have maintained a tradition of going to dinner and the theater in honor of her special day. When Brigadoon came up on my Shaw Festival Google, my only decisions were which date and what time to choose.
Over our pre-theater dinner, the new-teen and I discussed the play’s characters, the music, Lerner and Loewe and my senior class experience as the onstage leader of one of Brigadoon’s Scottish Clans, The MacLarens. I also tried to explain the storyline to my sweet grandchild, which I must admit sounded a bit dated even to me, some 70 years after the musical’s Broadway debut.
That being said, I had faith that no matter the passage of time, once we were settled in our seats, the fantasy love story would engage us both.
It was on our post-dinner stroll to the theater that our Brigadoon chat took an unexpected turn. It started when I had a flashback to my senior play experience. Since the Mount is a young-woman-only academy, the male roles in their plays are filled by actors from area all-male and co-ed schools. As it turned out, in Brigadoon, the lead role of Tommy Albright was filled by a senior from nearby Canisius High School.
Bruce was the young man’s name and, as memory recalls, he was as kind and sweet as he was talented and handsome. He was also African American, a reality that made no difference to anyone in our cast, class or school. It was simply a matter of fact.
Throughout weeks into months of rehearsals, Bruce and I became friends. We chatted, joked and enjoyed each other’s company. And, as teenage girls will do, I became smitten.
I was not the only Mountie to feel this way about Bruce. He was popular with all my classmates and the hot topic of many senior class conversations. What ramped up those conversations was the fact that as our Brigadoon performances drew near, so too did the Canisius High School date dance.
Which lucky girl was Bruce going to ask?
Speculation ran rampant with daily updates spreading like wildfire. This seems like an appropriate moment to mention that while I was a popular girl among my peers, I never qualified as the ultimate dream date for most guys. I was tall, talkative, and politically and socially opinionated. I was also surrounded by fellow Mounties who were model gorgeous and sophisticated. All of which meant I was not on anyone’s top ten list of date dance options for our “Brigadoon” leading man…including my own.
One day at rehearsal, Bruce found me in the hallway outside the backstage door. As always, we talked and laughed with ease. Then, out of nowhere, he asked if I’d like to go the date dance with him.
I was so shocked that, to this day, I’m not exactly sure how I replied, other than I know I said yes…followed no doubt by Snoopy happy dancing once he walked away.
Of course, word quickly circulated throughout rehearsal that I was Bruce’s date of choice. Suddenly I was seen differently….pretty, appealing, someone a boy like Bruce could like.
To be honest, I’m not sure if that perception was within my class, or myself. Perhaps both. All I knew was that unexpectedly and out of nowhere, I’d become THAT girl, the pretty and popular variety of my classmates that I’d been admiring all through those turbulent teen years.
Later that night, I patiently waited through my parent’s dinner conversation about work and the world before broaching the subject of my date dance invite. My father and mother were both professionals in their fields. Work was their primary focus. I was an only child that they loved by allotting me enough time outside of their jobs to get me raised and on my way.
As far as their rules about my social life, there were few activities they approved outside of scouts and school groups. Dating and boys bordered on taboo. As we finished our meal, I offered a silent prayer and delicately began my ask to attend the date dance with Bruce.
I can’t tell you exactly how that night unfolded, but somewhere along the way I told my parents of Bruce’s heritage. That’s when our conversation completely shut down. My mother and father were not interested in knowing anything else. I would never be allowed to go out with, “a black boy”.
I was devastated. It never occurred to me that Bruce’s skin color or genes could outweigh the value of his heart and soul. He was kind, funny, sweet and he liked me enough above all other girls in my class to ask me to the dance. That was all that mattered to me.
Later that night when Bruce called to make plans for our date, I answered the phone with my parents standing around me like a human prison wall. Through tears, I told Bruce I was sorry, but I wouldn’t be able to go to the dance with him. I didn’t say anything more. I didn’t have to. We both knew why.
The next day at rehearsal life went on, but it was different. Bruce and I didn’t share our backstage chats and jokes and once word got out that I was no longer his date, my classmates veered slightly from my path.
No one knew what to say or how to handle the racism that had clearly invaded our magical Brigadoon world. Worse, for months afterwards, I was heartbroken over the friendship that was destroyed and filled with shame that my parent’s prejudice had been the destructive weapon.
As I shared those memories of the story with my granddaughter, she asked only one question. “Why Nana? Why did your parents do that?” It was in that moment that gratitude replaced my resurrected feelings of shame as I realized my family had moved on from a world of selective racism into a world of diversity, a world of colors and choices. And the idea of eliminating good people from our lives due to heritage, skin color or gender has become unimaginable to all of us.
That’s exactly what I told my granddaughter as the curtain to Brigadoon began to rise. And as the play unfolded I realized that despite its antiquated, romantic, storyline, on this particular night, Mr. Lerner and Mr. Lowe’s music and words were offering a much greater meaning.