19
Jul
08

The Greatest Actress of All Time

I was nine, maybe ten years old. Our class fieldtrip was to see some play downtown.

The performance was, in retrospect, a heavy-handed piece about the importance of respecting your elders. The plot centered on a teenage Latina who has to adjust to her grandmother coming to live with them. The grandmother was very old-world, and spoke only Spanish. This led to numerous scenes of the grandmother struggling to communicate, which often ended with the girl storming off the stage in frustration.

The play was aimed, perhaps even conceived, for the audience that watched it: first-generation Hispanic children who had forgotten their Spanish and squirmed when their relatives spoke English in thick, embarrassing accents.

We watched as the grandmother and the teenager slowly bonded, and we laughed at their trip to the zoo, and we cried (well, I didn’t, but the girls in my class did) when the grandmother inevitably suffered an offstage fatal heart attack. The play ended with the teenage girl giving the eulogy for her beloved, Spanish-speaking abuela.

At the curtain call, the performers received the polite applause of children who knew they had seen something entertaining, but remained mystified over why they saw it or what it had meant. Regardless, the minor characters got a steady clapping, the parental figures garnered a bit more enthusiasm, and the teenage girl got a hoot or two of approval.

And then the grandmother stepped out for a bow.

The result was immediate. It was thunderous. It was bedlam.

The applause erupted so that everything that came before seemed like a whispered sigh at midnight. The decibel level ratcheted up to sheer din levels. Shouts and shrieks of approval washed over the stage. Many children leapt to their feet, although no adults had asked them to do so. Indeed, the teachers looked around, stunned, as their bratty charges slapped their hands together and whistled and stood on their chairs, aiming their affection at the grandmother.

I was unfamiliar with the concept of a standing ovation, and most likely so were the other kids. Neither had we been instructed to clap harder for the lead actress or informed what constituted a stellar performance or told to cheer. In fact, even we seemed shocked at our level of appreciation for the old woman.

It was like Charlie Chaplin at the Oscars.

For her part, the grandmother was amazed. She stepped back in surprise, looking more embarrassed than touched or flattered. She nodded quickly and tried to leave the stage, but the teenage girl grabbed her hand. The grandmother held hands with the other actors and took a bow, then she rushed off the stage as our applause continued, unabated.

To this day, I have no idea what provoked our outpouring. Maybe she reminded us of our own grandmothers. But more likely, she was the kind, wise, exuberant abuela we all wanted but didn’t have.

Most of our grandmothers were cranky old women who were bitter about leaving their homelands. They complained about the cold weather and immoral American culture and the lack of good flour tortillas available in el norte. They dragged us to church and threatened us with eternal damnation if we didn’t pray to Jesus every day, and they bellowed that their grandsons were perezoso brutos and their granddaughters dressed like whores.

But here was this friendly, patient grandmother who put up with a teenager’s outbursts. She passed along cultural traditions without ramming them down our throats, and she didn’t complain when we played new wave (it was circa 1980, after all) at top volume. I mean, how cool was she?

I don’t know the name of the actress who played the grandmother. She was old decades ago, so the odds are pretty good that she is no longer with us. But I’d like to think that when she looked back at her acting career or hobby or however she viewed performing, she remembered an auditorium full of children, all cheering her on.

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