The Shakespeare Lady is performing a passage from a play I do not recognize. I am the only patron in attendance. The admission price for the show is two dollars. The venue is a sidewalk.
“What feeble night bird overcome by misfortunes beats at my door?”
It’s a passage from the Robinson Jeffers version of Medea by Euripides – one of the Shakespeare Lady’s signature acts. We are standing outside an overpriced health food store. Customers are going in and out. Nobody stops to listen tonight.
“Can this be that great adventurer, the famous lord of the seas and delight of women, the heir of rich Corinth, this crying drunkard on the dark doorstep?”
The training she received at Bennington College in Vermont and the Yale School of Drama shines through. Her voice is strong and singsong, her physical gestures measured and effective yet sweeping. The lines from the passage seem to be directed at both herself and at the invisible character she is supposed to be addressing. At times, it feels as though she is addressing me. I feel included, somehow.
“Yet you’ve not had enough.”
No, I have not had enough. I am the feeble night bird. I am the boastful adventurer, the privileged middle class citizen, cut down to size. I hang on her every word. I know where this woman has been. I learned about her from first hand experience, word on the street, talking to the locals, and reading the news. She has a rare form of schizophrenia, an ailment she and someone at UCLA have described as “tactile demons”. She hears voices. They have been tormenting her since her days as a Yale student. Her Master’s Thesis was entitled “A Theatre of Hunger”.
In the early 1980s, she got into a physical argument with the voices and destroyed her apartment. She has been living on the streets and in mental hospitals, women’s shelters, and rooming houses ever since. The business owners around this neighborhood, which just so ironically happens to be the designated “arts district”, don’t like her much. She can get overly assertive. Sometimes she performs so close to the storefronts that the customers have to walk right by her, both coming and going. Apparently, people have complained, because the neighborhood business community is trying to put the kibosh on her performances. She has been arrested, thrown in jail, and tried for trespassing and disturbing the peace numerous times each.
Luckily, she is not all alone in the system. She has won allies through her performances. Many have advocated in the press for leniency for her minor “offenses”. Filmmakers and musicians have created documentaries and music videos in tribute to her. She even has a lawyer friend who defends her pro bono every time she goes to court. Even the mayor of New Haven likes her, and has been quoted as saying he admires the dignity she maintains despite her difficult lifestyle. Still, she continues living her own Theatre of Hunger.
“You have come to drink the last bitter drops. I’ll pour them for you.”
The rats took over her rooming house last June. The city condemned the place and kicked out all the tenants. I once saw what the place looked like when I myself was looking for a cheap place to live. It was frighteningly filthy. In an abandoned room I saw an open refrigerator, unplugged, with food still inside. The refrigerator was tilting, sadly, on broken feet. I didn’t dare look at the shared shower rooms.
The Shakespeare Lady still performs on the streets. Some say she smokes crack. I don’t judge it. Does your boss ask you what you’re going to spend your money on when he cuts your paychecks? The Shakespeare Lady’s performances are the best deal in town. Her eyes bulge from their sockets when performing, but rest easy and hooded when just walking. Her voice is natural and conversational as she again trots up the street towards me again:
“Hey baby, my name is the Shakespeare Lady,” goes the usual introductory line. “Mind if I read you a poem for a couple of dollars so I can get into a shelter?” By “poem” she means “theatrical performance”. She probably says “poem” because it’s quicker to say when you’re trying to hustle up a rush hour audience.
“Sure, Margaret, I remember you,” I reply, reaching into my pocket.
She readies herself by closing her eyes for a moment. She seems to be crouching internally, as if a cat before the pounce. She launches into the “To be or not to be” monolog from Hamlet. The cat has pounced, and she is clawing. A few lines go by before she is suddenly doing the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. Suddenly the speech has morphed to become the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. I can’t tell where she made the switches. Is she twisting her lines on purpose, or is this some manifestation of the schizophrenia? Is she confused? And does it even matter? The “mash-up”, if you will, is seamless. A DJ or collage artist should be so proficient at blending the arts of completely many different epochs of human history into one cohesive narrative. The result is a timeless wailing of the soul. A longing, a yearning, a sadness and a strength. For my two bucks, the Shakespeare Lady ain’t holding back.
I, for one, appreciate her performances.
“Thank you, Shakespeare Lady, for throwing a wrench into my day,” I should say. “For making me stop and look somewhere besides straight forward. For making me look up at the sky, where you are looking, Shakespeare Lady. Thank you for speaking loudly, for not being ashamed of yourself, and for being a human being and an actor and alive. Thank you for reminding ‘sane’ people of the raw underbelly of their own psyche. Thank you for all the debts you’ve paid so that I can have this moment with you.”
I never say all that. Instead, it’s just, “Thank you, Margaret.” I look her in the eye, clasp her hand in my two hands when I give her the money, and figure she understands.
“Thanks, baby, you have a good night now.”