I went away for two weeks to visit my family. When I returned, I called Ruby and told her I needed her to come to a meeting that Saturday night.
A long pause. “What about?”
“You’ll see. Be ready by six…we’ll grab a bite to eat first.”
Our destination was a full hour away from Ruby’s apartment, in one of the north-side neighborhoods where jazz and blues had migrated in search of a paying audience. We found a Vietnamese restaurant, and over a plate of noodles and shrimp we talked about her boss at work, the problems she was having with her back. The conversation seemed forced, though, without pause or reflection; as we spoke, we kept skirting each other’s gaze.
By the time we’d paid the restaurant bill and walked next door, the theater was already full. An usher showed us to our seats, which turned out to be in front of a group of black teenage girls out on a field trip. Some of the girls diligently thumbed through their programs, taking their cue from the older woman-a teacher, I assumed-who sat beside them. Most of the girls, though, were too excited to sit still; they whispered and giggled about the play’s lengthy title and asked questions of their chaperone, who showed an admirable patience throughout.
The room was suddenly blanketed in darkness, and the girls fell quiet. Then the lights rose, a dim blue now, and seven black women appeared on the stage dressed in flowing skirts and scarves, their bodies frozen in awkward contortions. One of them, a big woman dressed in brown, began to cry out:
…half-notes scattered without rhythm / no tune distraught laughter fallin’ over a black girl’s shoulder
it’s funny / it’s hysterical the melody-less-ness of her dance
don’t tell a soul
she’s dancing on beer cans and shingles…
As she spoke, the other women slowly came to life, a chorus of many shades and shapes, mahogany and cream, round and slender, young and not so young, stretching their limbs across the stage.
somebody / anybody sing a black girl’s song bring her out to know herself to know you but sing her rhythms carin’ / struggle / hard times
sing her song of life…
For the next hour, the women took turns telling their stories, singing their songs. They sang about lost time and discarded fantasies and what might have been. They sang of the men who loved them, betrayed them, raped them, embraced them; they sang of the hurt inside these men, hurt that was understood and sometimes forgiven. They showed each other their stretch marks and the calluses on their feet; they revealed their beauty in the lilt of their voice, the flutter of a hand, beauty waning, ascendant, elusive. They wept over the aborted children, the murdered children, the children they once were. And through all of their songs, violent, angry, sweet, unflinching, the women danced, each of them, double-dutch and rhumba and bump and solitary waltz; sweat-breaking, heart-breaking dances. They danced until they all seemed one spirit. At the end of the play, that spirit began to sing a single, simple verse:
I found god in myself
and I loved her / I loved her fiercely
Lights came up; bows were taken; the girls behind us cheered wildly. I helped Ruby with her coat and we walked out to the parking lot. The temperature had dropped; the stars glinted like ice against the black sky. As we waited for the car to warm up, Ruby leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.
Her eyes, deep brown, were shimmering. I grabbed her gloved hand and gave it a quick squeeze before starting to drive. Nothing more was said; for the entire ride back to the South Side, until I left her at her door and wished her good-night, we never broke that precious silence.