This is my favorite scene. I crouch excitedly in the wings, settle my fur, and wait.
On! I drop to my knuckles, bound four-legged onstage, singing “Shoo Be Doo Shoo Be Daa” and bobbing to the beat along with 25 others dressed in the same black “fur,” faces painted with thick layers of makeup. On cue, my son and I begin throwing a pair of boots around, and then I leap onto a stool and pound on an antique typewriter in rhythm to the doo-wop beat. Then our shining moment of glory arrives. The spotlight turns its bright gaze on my two sons and me, and we hop onto a table for 10 seconds of mayhem while the rest of our ape family tears and shreds the human campsite, all while singing our throats out. And the audience rewards our raucous antics with laughter and applause.
The above isn’t my imagination at work. I actually spent nearly every evening this past winter squatting, dragging my knuckles, grunting, pounding my chest, and picking nits (and eating them, if I was hungry) from my gorilla children. Our community theatre in Kodiak, Alaska, performed the Broadway musical Tarzan, complete with flying leopards and butterflies, apes hanging from vines, and Tarzan himself swinging across the jungle canopy. My part was much more lowly. I was simply one of the tribe, singing back up to the leads as we nestled in the jungle or excitedly “ee-ahah-ing” during a fight.
It was humbling to become a quadruped, to lay down my usual life of writing and speaking. I traded heels for bare feet, skirts for ragged fur, words and essays for grunts. But I’d do it all again for a single ripe banana.
Most of my life I’ve been a hunter and gatherer of words, chasing that most elusive of prey—truth and understanding. Even when I fall short, good things come. I am forced to examine my life and my topic from multiple angles. I discover truth in unexpected places. The past is recovered and redeemed. But trading art forms, from the page to the stage, brought a revelation of its own.
As I went home after each night’s performance, massaging my calloused knuckles and knees, I knew: theater is incarnational. Nothing human is spared, even when playing an ape. Muscle, joint, gut, knuckles, heart, tongue, and mind—all were required if I wanted to lay down my identity to embody another. I knew this more than three decades ago when I performed in high school productions. I had forgotten what hard work it is. But it is work of a high calling.
The best art, in any form, does this: creates and feeds a hunger for the beautiful, the good, and the true.
The play itself reminded me of its value. Tarzan is more than just a story. It’s a tale about how we respond to those who are different from us. It’s about taking a strange child into a mother’s heart just because he doesn’t have a mother—and needs one. A gun is involved. A tragic death occurs. But love is born, the guilty are caught, and two worlds are joined into a single family. And I got to do far more than write about it: I got to live within this story and enact it for the instruction and delight of others.
The musical was a grand, beautiful success in our town and in the lives of the cast. So it is. Making art opens our hearts to love the world—and our neighbors. The best art, in any form, does this: creates and feeds a hunger for the beautiful, the good, and the true. Music, poetry, dance—they all enlighten and humanize. Tender, true presentations loosen our grip. They reveal the dangerous truth that the “other” is much like us.
I am energized to keep on working at what we’ve all been called to do since Adam and Eve: cultivating the garden in front of us, bringing beauty and goodness out of a weedy culture and a tangled creation. For me, this means I will continue to pursue language and truth, but my time in the play has awakened a desire to do more than this. Becoming an ape has taught me that our neighbors are everywhere, and they look wonderfully different than us for this very purpose: so we can learn the immeasurable shape of God’s love.