Well, it’s that time of year again. By the time you read this, we will have completed auditions, endured all-day tech rehearsals and be anticipating the exciting chaos of opening night. As always, emotions will be flying every which way, darting with scattered reactions, and sometimes colliding with startled sparks.
While that’s a core aspect of the experience, that’s not what I want to convey to you today.
I would ask you to close your eyes, but I doubt you would be able to read if you did, so I’m simply going to ask you to focus. Whether you began in preschool or just last year, I’m going to take you through the adventure of performing “Ramayana!” at Mount Madonna School.
You are three years old. Amongst butterflies, bears, frogs, birds and monkeys, you dance in circles. Blinded by the lights, you squint to see your parents in the crowd. Someone behind you pushes you, a classmate, reminding you it’s time to scurry offstage. As you follow your friends off, you gaze up at the seniors, awestruck by their presence. So it will continue for the next several years.
Nine. The boys and girls separate now. Before the play you wait together. Playing cards, eating pizza, and running away from the mothers who are trying to wipe your greasy fingers with napkins before you damage your costumes. When it comes time to wait backstage, your heart flutters with nerves for the first time when you realize the magnitude of the audience. Whilst listening for your cue, you’re fidgeting. If you’re a boy, you’re playing with your mask: sticking your hands in the eye-holes, making funny faces nobody can see, and squirming in your tight skin. If you’re a girl you’re attempting to slyly readjust your costume so it will look like everyone else. The adults scoff, “You’re not belly dancers!” they say. But you know better. You fix your skirts as a group. There’s nothing they can do about it now!
Ten. Your class gets to use staffs now! Just like Ram and Lakshman. The gymnasts dance and the guards spar. You know the high-schoolers are standing behind you, watching. This only adds to the exhilaration flooding through your bones. As the song nears its end, you sprint offstage, anxious to change.
Eleven. Your class sits in the assembly room, listening to Sampad talk. All those years before, practice had always been filled with one name: “Let’s make it perfect before we show [Director] Sampad [Kachuck].” Or, “We’ve got something really wonderful to show Sampad this year!” All those years of preparation, and now he was talking to you before you even began. It’s because it was finally time. Time for you to participate in a scene. To paint your bodies like the big kids. To practice the Bheel dance and, somehow, pull it off. Time to act!
Twelve. The routine is familiar to that of being a Bheel. Body paint, wraps, scarves, jewelry. Except this time, not only do you get to act, you sing. There are many songs in the “Ramayana!,” and big kids sing them all. And you and your classmates are amongst them now. You create a river with fabric, just as you’d seen the older students do before, and you participate in a right of passage of singing about feet…and magic dust.
Thirteen. As you become a teenager, your “Ramayana!” experience changes. Dance auditions. Song Auditions. Scene Auditions. You must face the same set of challenges as the seniors. The years go faster now. You’re tormenting Sita as a demon, you’re slithering around as a lizard, and you might even re-visit the Guha tribe. Maybe you’re a cook, or a spider, or a deer, maybe even a belly dancer or a demonini! You begin to participate in the Invocation. Your voice is one with the high-schoolers, and you watch as the leads join the singing.
Fifteen. High school. Auditions mean more than ever before. And your nerves are at a level you’ve never felt them reach. With these memories in the back of your mind, you leap around as a monkey, you revisit the Bheel Tribe, the Guha tribe again (because traditions are always changing), and Lanka. You become connected to specific scenes or songs. Forest. Seashore. Black Sacrifice. Final Battle. You and your friends speak the lines you’d heard for so long as a child, and the familiar melodies now sound from the lips of you and your close friends.
And that brings us to now.
I’ve tried to articulate our experience to others, to describe our graduation from one character to the next, to explain that the “Ramayana!” is as essential to June, as the Winter Holidays are to December.
While people come and go, the “Ramayana!” continues to live on through the decades. I will be leaving in June, the end of my senior year, but the play will continue just as it has been. That’s strange to me, strange but so right. The “Ramayana!” is a collection of experiences. These exist in one being, yes, painting a student’s years through characters and songs. But they also reside in one student body, with each individual holding only a portion of the many memories that make up this timeless story. That’s how the “Ramayana!” continues on with the same power each passing year.
Just as Lord Shiva proclaims at the final moment of the performance, so is the experience of participating in this tradition. “Tears of joy well in the eyes to hear once more this song of glory. There is no end to Rama’s story.”
June 8 and 9, 7 p.m.; June 10, 2 p.m. Mexican Heritage Theater, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. $35 Adults/$25 Children (18 and under). www.MountMadonnaSchool.org/ramayana