Thank you Five!
was first witness to Wei’s uncanny ability to act and emote two to three years ago during an open audition for Lilies of the Field. His impromptu portrayal of the different personalities in the play captivated me instantly, whether it was the adventurous carefree southerner, the easygoing Mexican priest, or the friendly neighborhood bartender. Present-day circumstances, as it were, didn’t betray the brilliance of his performance and he easily convinced the other actors and the panel alike that he was in fact Homer, José, or whoever he happened to incarnate. His talent was honest and natural, void of pretense, and lacking the artificial and forced elements of theatre training. To no one’s surprise, the director cast him. What nobody expected, however, were the consequences of incorporating a personality like Wei’s into the world of theatre, which, as I will show, ultimately detached him from reality.
In all fairness to this curious story, I must start with rehearsals, and with the first day we assembled as a cast. The director gathered all of us into a classroom of sorts, greeted us briefly, and asked us to improvise several scenes, and embody various roles in the play. She forced us to flex our acting muscle and stretch our emotional reach. It was a great opportunity for us to learn about each other and our capabilities. Wei’s personification of the different characters during this exercise was pure and instinctive. His elongated Asian eyes, straight black hair, small frame, and thinly defined features were transparent under the commanding personality of his characters.
He was born and raised in Xian, China, and moved to America when he was eleven years old. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, which was about four years ago, he relocated to Atlanta. He landed a teaching position at Inman Middle School in the Highlands, near downtown, and taught basic seventh-grade science.
Theatre became a part of his life shortly after his arrival in Atlanta. “Somehow,” as he would say, he found himself volunteering for a church play and that was enough to poison him with the unyielding curse of the theatre bug. This passion quickly brought him into the theatre circuit. He befriended many actors and quickly learned how to spot auditions, which is how he ended up in Lilies.
Lilies of the Field is a story about a southerner who travels the country in his pickup truck. Homer Smith (the southerner), after having his army discharge papers processed, fed up with living under constant scrutiny and the threat of unbending rules, traveled the country without itineraries, schedules, or anchors. He lived on his own terms and worked only when he wanted and needed to.
With very little left of his rations, Homer picked up a small job in the middle of nowhere for a group of four seemingly helpless German nuns. The post, in spite of Homer’s open convictions against it, eventually grew to the monumental charge of building a chapel. Homer quickly became powerless to the nuns’ rugged charm and basic good nature and reluctantly resigned himself to the commission. As the construction matured and the vision took tangible form, however, he grew more enthusiastic and inevitably adopted the project as his own with zeal and determination.
Inadequate tools, a lack of adobe bricks, Spartan living conditions, and no wages crushed his morale, however, and drove him to a clandestine departure under a moonlit sky. He successfully reclaimed the comforts of urban life, but not for long. Life in the city simply couldn’t mend his broken spirit. His foolish pride, loyalty, and respect for the nuns wouldn’t budge, and forced him back to the remote desert town with one goal in mind: to finish what he’d started – the chapel. He accomplished that and disappeared again, his self-respect and sense of honor restored. He wasn’t heard from again after that, but his story gave birth to the legend of St. Joseph the Carpenter.
The playwright intended for the character of Homer to be a black southerner, but also made it suitable for a white Baptist, in case a black actor was not available, which is how Wei won the opportunity to compete for the role. No one really expected Wei to overcome his Asian upbringing and successfully convey southern mannerisms, but as I mentioned earlier, he cloaked his faint foreign accent and accompanying heritage with remarkable ease.
Rehearsals lasted about a month and a half. We met every weeknight after work from seven to eleven o’clock, and some Saturdays, too. Rehearsals were intensive and without a moment’s rest, especially for Wei. Homer is the central character of the story and Wei was therefore involved in almost every scene. He participated in most of the dialogue, from beginning to end, not to mention numerous in-between speeches, too. The director dedicated the first two to three weeks of rehearsals to block the play – in other words, stage the scenes – and allow Wei and the actors to learn their lines.
As Wei went through the process of memorizing his text, his pronunciation degraded and that was because he was more aware than ever of the challenges of mimicking a southern drawl with an oriental tongue. His foreign intonation became more acute in the presence of his insecurity, and especially evident when he struggled to recite his half-memorized lines off book. His tongue couldn’t keep up with his brain. His friends’ skepticism about his ability to overcome this impediment didn’t help matters. They loved and supported him, but they couldn’t help expressing their doubts – amid laughter and smiles – which they knew Wei would accept and welcome in the helpful, lighthearted spirit with which they intended them. Wei therefore resolved to improve his southern-speaking skills. He decomposed and scrutinized every word in the script. He analyzed how a southerner would pronounce particular words, like “not’in” for “nothing,” “gee’tar” for “guitar,” and “wont” for “want.”
His preoccupation with the pronunciation of the words was such that he neglected to emote naturally and believably. Helen (the director) became very nervous. Homer was pivotal to the show and she felt obligated to help.
“Wei, let’s try something different. Drop your southern accent and just say the line. Speak it to me, as though you were simply telling me.”
“…Just supposing the heavens open up and the angel of the Lord speaks out…that still isn’t gonna do it.”
“There! See how different that is. That was much more natural. Maybe we should drop your southern accent and concentrate on the character. Many actors do it, and their roles don’t suffer because of it. Look at Sidney Poitier: he was from Jamaica and still did an amazing job with the role of Homer in the movie.”
“I think you’re right. I’ve been concentrating so much on my southern accent that I’ve forgotten to feel and live what I’m saying. Part of it is that I don’t know the lines all that well yet; but if I get that straightened out, I think I can do a better accent.” Wei didn’t think the role would be any good without the accent. “Let me try the accent for a little while longer…I’ll also lighten it up; it may sound more natural then.”
“Okay, we’ll see how it goes, but I may still want the accent out.”
Wei dedicated every free second of his life to memorizing his text. As soon as he left work, before rehearsal started, he studied the script and ran his lines numerous times. On the weekends, he wouldn’t let go of his script, keeping it constantly by his side, no matter where he went. He’d read a monologue three or four times, write a distinctive word from each of its sentences on a piece of paper, and use the list as a trigger to remind him of the successive order of ideas in the speech, then read it again, four or five times, until he said it perfectly. He’d then place the cheat-sheet to the side and recite the lines, peeking at the list every now and again, until he was able to deliver the entire speech flawlessly, and without any help.
Committing the lines to memory had an enormous impact on Wei’s acting and vocalization. He was now completely off book. His inflection quickly took a turn for the better and incarnated an honest southern twang, which now complemented a well-defined country spirit. Not only did he stop stumbling through the lines, but he also felt and lived the role of Homer.
When he was onstage, he became a true southern Baptist – a redneck, even. His light oriental features became invisible to the naked eye (to all the senses, really). His persona now embodied power, control, and, most of all, freedom and confidence. The stage completely transformed him from the quiet and tamed actor that he was to the assertive, free-spirited Homer.
Homer’s appearance reflected his background and his deeply rooted personality. He unapologetically wore dirty knee-high, steel-toed boots, blue jeans, a plaid red and blue shirt, and a blemished, flesh-tone hat. His calloused fingers were thick and strong from working with his hands and his facial features were sharp, rugged, and well defined. His chest always looked to the heavens and his thumbs found no better home than the inside of his thick leather belt, on the edges of a silver belt buckle. He couldn’t be any more different from Wei if he wanted to, but that’s exactly what Wei looked like onstage.
Opening night arrived and Wei, to the surprise of many of his friends, was incredible; he was Homer, and not just onstage but as soon as he got to the theatre. Actors adopt weird rituals to get into character and many of them stay in character even behind the scenes to give a truer performance and fully feel the intensity of their role. Wei did this very thing. He never went out of character – only in the parking lot did he let up his act, but I rarely saw him then. His dedication to the show was such that he insisted on having a name other than his own appear in the program. He figured his name was too Asian to belong to a true southerner. He thought his real name could break the illusion of his character and negatively predispose the audience to depart from the fantasy of the play.
The theatre didn’t really enjoy the popularity we’d all hoped for, but those who attended the show certainly savored a rare treat. We had our cast party a week after the run and that was the last time I ever saw Wei. He wasn’t the insecure personage we met during auditions but a more confident, stronger, and less rigid soul. I couldn’t help but think of him more as Homer than Wei. The plain truth, I guess, is that we not only grow as actors during the play but also as people. We sometimes adopt the qualities of the characters we portray and even some of the faults, which is really the point of this story, as the reader will soon discover.
I finally caught up with the happenings of our Asian friend just a few days ago, when I met up with Helen.
“Have you seen or heard from Wei?” Helen asked me.
“No, not really. I haven’t seen him in any other play, or heard from him, or of him, even, since we did Lilies.”
“You probably don’t know what happened after the play, then…Apparently, he identified with his role so much that he literally became Homer, the person, permanently burying Wei in the past.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, after the cast party, he never again wore his ‘Wei-clothes’; he only wore ‘Homer-like apparel.’ He submitted his notice of resignation to the school and quit teaching. Thankfully, it was April, so he finished out the school year, at least.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No! He bought a second-hand pickup truck, legally changed his name to Homer, and headed west without even a map, as I was told. The rumor is that he’s now in an Indian reservation in Arizona – only God knows for how long. He hasn’t spoken to his family since the play, except for one letter, which he sent about a month ago.”
“How did you find out about all of this? Did you see him?”
“No, not at all. His family was worried about him and his sister came to talk to me, and to ask me questions about him…about the carefree Homer of the play.”
Some say that living a character onstage is a very dangerous business. To live a fantasy, even for a couple of hours, is to play with the very delicate balance of reality and insanity, crossing spiritual and universal boundaries with nothing but the assurance of a one-way ticket.