Southern Journal: No Place Like Home

It is often true, that life imitates art. Even then, especially then, the show–and life–must go on.
Rick Bragg

Sometimes, to break a spell of death and destruction, you just have to drop a house on a witch. Our boy moped into the den last spring to announce, after much sighing, that his teachers had settled on The Wizard of Oz as the final production of his junior year. Over the years, Jake had swaggered across the stage as a tortured drifter in Picnic and mugged as the mad dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. He had hoped for serious theater, Tennessee Williams maybe, but instead got a "little kid's play."

"I think I'll try out for Scarecrow," he said. "That's the one looking for a brain?" I said.

Holy Spirit is a small school. The stage is a plywood platform in the gym. There is no curtain, but that does not mean there are no curtain calls. For three years I perched like an elephant on a beach ball in those tiny plastic chairs, watching teenagers sing, dance, and emote their hearts out. I gave standing ovations, in part because it allowed blood to flow again in my legs.

But this Oz, despite my boy's grumpiness, promised to be a grand production. It would be a schoolwide showpiece, gathering older students into starring roles while providing unlimited bit parts for little children. You can have an Oz without flying monkeys--they give me the creeps--but how do you pull it off without Munchkins?

They were churning through rehersals in April when, on the 27th, tornadoes tore through the South and gouged into Tuscaloosa. Fifteen of the cast's 65 students were touched directly by the storm, their homes damaged and destroyed.

Annie McClendon, the music director, thought the play was finished. In a city so wounded, how do you put on a play about the house plucked from the earth that lands on someone, even a witch? It would seem insensitive. But Kelly Taylor, the drama director, convinced her that , if canceled, the play would be only one more normal thing the storm took away from these children.

You could see a change in the actors when they returned, some arriving from borrowed houses in cars patched with duct tape. The Wicked Witch was sad. The Munchkins had learned that not even the walls of their houses could keep out bad things.

"My kids saw trees knocked down they used to climb and saw the street where they used to ride their tricycles destroyed," said Philip Pitts, whose triplets, Henry, Kate, and Anna, played Munchkins. "And they learned that their daddy can't protect them from everything."

But to abandon the play would have been admitting things might never be the same, said Maxwell Elebash, whose daughter, Augusta, played the bad witch. If not now, with this, then when? With what?

They set up chairs for 150 on opening night, but the people kept coming, 200, 300, more. The gym filled. People came who had nothing to do with Holy Spirit, to be part of something normal, too, and hear a 3-foot-high thespian squeak: "You've killed her so completely that we thank you very sweetly." People said it was one of the best performances of The Wizard of Oz they had ever seen. Even the part where the Wicked Witch--circling the gym floor on her bicycle, shrieking--accidentally crashed into a baby carriage.

It will not fix everything. It will not raise walls. But Jake had worked like a man, digging stumps, hauling limbs, never complaining that his new car was now filled with broken glass. That night he danced across the stage with a girl in ruby slippers in his arms.

Sophie Petrovic, whose house just down the street from mine was ruined, cavorted in a blur of Munchkins, as if all evil winds were just props on stage.

The show does go on. Ding-dong. The witch is dead.