A Substitution

A short story

A cardboard box contains a collection of artifacts, including a photo of Malcolm X
Illustration by Ricardo Tomás. Sources: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty; Thomas Barwick / Getty
Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh about his writing process.

Three days before opening night, the lead actress quits my play to do summer-stock theater in the Catskills. “Occupational hazard,” the director tells me, meaning this is what happens when no one’s getting paid for two weeks of rehearsal for one performance only in a basement on the Lower East Side that seats 40 on folding chairs. In other words, opening night is the same as closing night. Never mind that I’ve put my heart and soul into this play, that it’s taken me three years to finish the script, writing weeknights and weekends, and that in three more years I’ll be 35, which is when I plan to ask my boss if I might be promoted from my permanent position as full-time temp. He’ll say, “I thought you wanted to be a playwright.” Indeed, this is my fifth play (not counting the bad ones I wrote in college). And to make matters worse, I was the one who’d insisted on casting the actress in the lead role, against the better judgment of my director, and solely for sentimental reasons: because she reminded me of my mom, blue eyes, etc., and my mom’s been dead for almost a year. She’d been my biggest fan, single mother that she was, coming to all my productions, starting when I was a little boy, back when I wasn’t thinking about that thing called career, putting on plays in the living room in front of an audience of one who gave me a standing ovation every time. “Bravo, Billy,” she’d say. She’d hug and put me on her lap. “One day you’re going to be on Broadway.”

Now I’m sitting in the back row of a sweltering theater with 40 seats and no AC, listening as the audience chuckles along to my two-act about two couples on a beach chatting about themes of life and love. Apparently, no one’s able to tell that the lead actress has rehearsed only twice. The play is light—witty banter, pleasing setting, happy ending, box-office appeal—but it’s while everyone is exiting the theater post-performance, shaking my sweaty hand hard, congratulating me, saying all the right things, beaming with the glow of a comedy that has not taxed them, making me think that there’s still some hope for my so-called career after all, that I’m surprised to see the original actress standing in front of me. Doubly shocking because of how closely she resembles my mother. We smile at each other warmly, solicitously, even though I thought she was supposed to be in the Catskills doing summer stock. For a moment I think I might sob on her shoulder from this strange, ghostlike encounter. Then she asks me, point-blank, if I’d ever considered how white my play is. In fact how white all my plays are, and also how middle-class. “Have you ever considered that?” she asks. She happens to be white and middle-class too, so the question almost seems like a contradiction—or at least unfair. “It’s about themes of life and love,” I say. I’m confused. I’m flustered. “I’m not talking about themes,” she says, “I’m talking about sensibility.” I want a second opinion, but most of the audience has already left, and they’d been white too, and none of them had been producers.

Six weeks later, I’m staring at an empty computer screen, weeknights and weekends. Whenever someone asks me what I’m working on, I tell them, “I’m in the thick of it,” which on some level is true. But I’m bereft of inspiration and insight, wallowing in artistic self-pity and theatrical bitterness. It doesn’t help that this is right around the time when Hamilton is beginning its ascension, breaking every Broadway box-office record along the way. Nor does it help that I’d known Lin-Manuel Miranda, mostly from a distance, having traveled in the same circles when we were both nobodies. As for his musical, I don’t plan to see it, but I have managed to track down a few disparaging reviews online—not easy to find—to confirm what I already suspected (“sophomoric,” “pandering,” “inaccurate,”), and I’ve listened to the cast album three times. Somehow I know that the actress was right about my work, and what I really need to do, if there’s any chance of rescuing my playwriting soul, is create my own “unflinching portrait of America”—my future review for my play while sitting at my desk late at night. But if I have something of significance to say, I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know where to find it, until one afternoon, about four months into my commercial and critical funk, with my computer blank and my brain running on empty, the pendulum of artistic sensibility finally swings, and it swings all the way over to Malcolm X. Here is a figure as far from a beach scene as one can get. Here is big drama, high stakes, no whites, except for a high-school teacher who told him that he should give up his dream of being a lawyer and become a carpenter instead. This I’ve gleaned from Wikipedia, along with references to Pan-Africanism, Hinton Johnson, and everything else I’d never known about Malcolm X. Two weeks later, I’ve written 20 pages of a two-act with a tragic ending. No one in the audience will be chuckling this time. And two weeks later, I’ve written another 20 pages. And then after that, I do what every playwright does: I procrastinate.

I tell myself that it’s play-related, and I really should spend an afternoon taking photographs on the sidewalk outside the former Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, because no historical play would be complete without some fieldwork. And I also should really spend a Saturday—maybe two—at the Schomburg Center, located aptly on Malcolm X Boulevard, digging deep into the library archives, white interloper that I am, come to learn from African American newspapers of the 1960s about how much my high-school history classes sugarcoated the past. Late to the game, I’m undertaking a crash course on Jim Crow, augmented by Malcolm X’s commentary running through my mind, courtesy of 15 hours of YouTube videos, reminding me that this isn’t the past I’m learning about. It’s the present. “The white man is afraid of truth, Billy,” I hear him saying in his matter-of-fact tone, firm and patient, measured and gentle, implicating me straight to my face. Yes, I know that, Malcolm, but please try to understand how far away this truth has always been for me, how as a little boy I watched the L.A. riots on my Upper West Side television set, in my prewar doorman building, sitting on my mother’s lap, five days, 63 dead, and my mother shaking her head, saying, “It’s a shame what they did to that man, Billy”—she was referring to Reginald Denny—and the reporters saying that as bad as it was, it was still only the second-worst riot in American history. But I don’t recall anyone ever bothering to tell us what the worst one had been.

And once my fieldwork has been satisfied, I decide that what I really need to do next, before getting back to actually writing my play, is read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I should have already read, of course, 500 pages of a primary source, with its blockbuster opening line, as straightforward and chilling as any in American literature: “When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night.” And while I’m reading, I’m taking on extra shifts as a temp, because you can’t be a playwright if you can’t pay the bills. Now when asked what I’m working on, I say, “I’m working 60 hours a week.” I’m also deep-cleaning my apartment, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the baseboards, 40 pages of an unfinished play staring down at me, the weeks piling up, middle age approaching, which is when it occurs to me that what I really should have been doing, before having done anything else—Schomburg, Audubon, Autobiography—is emptying out my mother’s storage unit.

By now she’s been dead nearly two years. Her illness was brief, unexpected, and sad, after less than a week on hospice, lying in our living room with an oxygen tank in the corner and the sconces on the wall turned low, the same living room where I’d once put on my plays for her. But this time the drama was immediate and true, unfolding in front of us in real time, almost entirely in silence. I would sit beside her for long stretches, staring at the side of her face, all pallor and cheekbones, while I spoon-fed her bite-size pieces of dinner that required concentration for her to chew and swallow. Occasionally she would become energized; she’d squeeze my hand, she’d speak with gusto, her blue eyes wide, her personality returning to keep death at bay. She didn’t want dinner, she wanted dessert. She didn’t want water, she wanted root beer. “I want A&W, Billy,” she’d say, her voice firm. Back and forth to the corner store I’d go, sometimes past midnight, and the doorman from my childhood, dressed like a pallbearer, would hold the front door for me each time with what felt like increasing solemnity. When I reentered the apartment, I would brace myself to find my mother gone, but she’d be sitting upright and annoyed, adjusting her hospital bed in half-inch increments, as if she were trying to get her car out of a snowdrift. “I want Ben & Jerry’s,” she’d say.

I sold her furniture on Craigslist and put everything else into a Manhattan Mini Storage. If anything was worth saving, I told myself, I’d figure it out later. But I’d never visited until now, and here I am in a space the size of a home office, surrounded by cardboard boxes, stacked floor to ceiling, each one labeled by the moving company, bathroom, kitchen, as if this were temporary quarters for a tenant between homes. The architectural ethos of the Manhattan Mini Storage only adds to the feeling of corporeal limbo, with its long white hallways and morguelike setting, its padlocked doors, its linoleum muffling my footsteps. Suddenly I understand what I should have understood from the outset, that I’m embarking with my mother on the final stage of our journey together, a painstaking and emotional reckoning by way of six decades’ worth of cherished objects. No, I haven’t been procrastinating over a play about Malcolm X—it’s the opposite: The play about Malcolm X has been my way of avoiding my mother’s storage unit.

But the first box I open contains six umbrellas and a plastic bag filled with other plastic bags. I had told the moving company to pack everything, and now I’m being confronted by the reality of such an overzealous directive, which, to the movers’ credit, they appear to have followed to the letter. In the next box I find a dozen floppy disks, a wall-mount pencil sharpener, and an assortment of other obsolete office supplies.

So it goes. She had saved everything, it seems. She had discarded nothing. I’ve spent $400 a month storing the detritus of my mother’s life. Yet if she’d kept anything of nostalgic value, I can’t find it. If she’d kept the postcards I’d sent her once a week from college, I can’t find those either. Ten cardboard boxes later, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d never had a son. And never had a life beyond the one I’d known. What I had assumed would be a heartfelt endeavor that would conclude with me crying on the floor of the mini storage is mostly a tedious treasure hunt to nowhere. Where are the daily planners, the diaries, the keepsakes, the heirlooms? Where is the box labeled memorabilia?
Once in a while I get lucky and come across something of possible interest, like a gently worn brooch in a pile of dinnerware, but I have no way of discerning whether what I’ve discovered is a beloved item or simply cheap and quotidian. Just like I don’t know what to make of the random undated photos of relatives I’ve never met, not a one, standing together in front of an apartment building on the Lower East Side, pale, cold, working-class, strangers to me all, with the exception of my mother, whom I scarcely recognize as a little girl. She’s wearing a blue dress in the photo, and she’s smiling at the camera, lips no teeth, but the blue dress is too big for her, and it’s a little bit shabby, and she doesn’t look very happy.

I remember that once for her birthday she’d planned for us to do something special to celebrate, a fun afternoon in the city together, pizza and a movie, but I’d been recalcitrant for some reason, and I hadn’t wanted to see the movie she’d wanted to see, a rom-com with Julia Roberts, and she hadn’t wanted to see what I’d wanted to see, an animated version of Hercules, and finally we’d agreed to split the difference and watch Good Will Hunting, which, when I wasn’t confused, I was mostly bored. “It’s about a young person’s aspirations,” she’d said afterward, the two of us walking the streets of late-afternoon New York, while she tried her best to explain to me what had clearly gone over my head. Perhaps I had been feeling condescended to, because I’d blurted out, inexplicably, “You’re the one who’s stupid.” “That’s not nice, Billy,” she’d said. She was trying to put on a brave face, and her crestfallen expression had been excruciating for me. I could see that I’d hurt her feelings on her special day, but I could not bring myself to apologize. We had walked for a long time, saying nothing, light fading, until we were standing in front of that same Lower East Side apartment building from the photo, gazing up at a run-of-the-mill four-story tenement that was distinguished only by the bakery on the ground floor selling high-end muffins, which I’d hoped my mother might buy for us. She had stood there for a while, brooding, staring at the brick wall, shrouded in long shadows, and then she’d said, “Gentrification, Billy.”

By the time midnight arrives at Manhattan Mini Storage, I’m encircled by 100 upturned boxes, my hands smelling of cardboard, wondering if I would have been better off scrutinizing the contents of the pencil sharpener for keys to a past that’s seemingly been erased. My mother had been raised Catholic, but other than a Bible and a rosary, I find no Catholic traces anywhere. Nor had we ever had any in our lives, she and I, no church, no Easter, no last rites in the living room on her hospital bed. Come to think of it, we’d had no Irish either, despite her being fifth-generation. The only Irish I’d ever experienced was the time she took me to the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, four hours on Fifth Avenue in a March drizzle, watching leprechauns pass by on green floats. “Cultural stereotypes, Billy,” she’d said. She never talked about her past, and I never thought to ask, and now I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life trying to make sense out of a pile of disparate trinkets, tchotchkes, ephemera, less than 1 percent of the total haul, not even enough to fill one of my mother’s plastic bags, the last remains of a history that has slowly faded over the generations.

Never mind a play about Malcolm X. I don’t know anything about myself.

And so the next time the pendulum of artistic sensibility swings, it swings even wider. It swings all the way to the 19th century, New York City, the middle of the Civil War. Here’s even bigger drama, higher stakes, no beach scenes. Instead, tenement scenes—from the inside looking out. Now when someone asks me what I’m working on, I tell them, “I’m in the thick of it,” which is an understatement. The writing is laborious and slow-going, each line of dialogue necessitating, on average, 10 minutes of research in the never-ending pursuit of historical accuracy. I’m undertaking a crash course on Irish immigration, courtesy of more time spent on Wikipedia, clicking from hyperlink to hyperlink, each entry as distressing as the next, beginning with the potato famine, seven years, 1 million Irish dead, thanks to the British, and another million fleeing the country, many on the “coffin ships,” arriving in America—if they’re not among the 30 percent who die en route—three months later, where they cram into the Lower East Side (pre-gentrification), living in poverty, working for starvation wages, and enduring discrimination for being both Irish and Catholic. Somewhere deep within my DNA lies the molecular imprint of this history, affecting me I know not how in the 21st century.

The first character I create is Billy, of course, a.k.a. me, and the second character is my mom, resurrecting her and putting her back in her childhood apartment on Mulberry Street, where the two of us can be together again (albeit 150 years ago). When the lights rise, Act I, Scene i, I have her standing center stage, wearing a dress—a blue dress—not unlike the blue dress from that photo I’d found of her as a little girl, except now she’s an adult, and she’s made the dress out of scraps from the uniforms she’s been sewing all day for the Union soldiers going off to fight. It’s piecemeal work, low-paying, and she has to buy the spools of thread at 10 cents each. She’s supporting the war effort, yes, but she’s against the war. This is only the first of many contradictions.

“Do I look beautiful?” she’s asking me, twirling around in the winter sunlight that’s coming through the lone window facing the tenement that shares the outdoor bathroom where the typhus comes from.

No, we’re not on the Upper West Side anymore, Mom and I, and we’re not in the middle class either.

We’re also not white, which comes as shocking news to 21st-century me. According to Wikipedia, we’re considered the “missing link,” that final evolutionary stage between ape and human, biologically closer to the African than to the white man, what with our prognathous jaws and facial angles—all of this scientifically indisputable, and completely obvious to 19th-century me once I stare at my reflection long enough in the tenement window. To the long list of oppression that I would have been contending with—poverty, discrimination, joblessness—I can now add body dysmorphia. And so when my mom turns and asks me, “Do I look beautiful?,” the truth, as she most certainly would have already suspected, was, “No, Ma, you don’t look beautiful.” The xenophobia comes from without, sure, but it’s also within.

Two months later, I’m still tinkering with the first scene, refining facts, increasing drama, me and Mom getting on each other’s nerves in a 300-square-foot apartment without heat. I’m unemployed and I’ve been home all day in the tenement. I was home all day yesterday, too. Last winter, I worked six weeks in a row digging ditches in Central Park, which is what passes for a good job at $1 a day. Now no one’s hiring the Irish, not even on the docks. Irish need not apply read the signs I see on Wikipedia. My mom keeps telling me that I should ask Boss Tweed, that Boss Tweed will help me find something, as if Boss Tweed is a close personal friend. But we both know that if the slaves are freed, they’ll head straight to Manhattan, all 4 million of them, and then I really won’t be able to find a job.

There’s not going to be any procrastination with the play this time. This time I’m writing straight through to the end, nonstop, unless you count watching 17 hours of Ric Burns’s documentary miniseries on New York City as procrastination, which I don’t. Or his brother Ken’s miniseries on the Civil War, which I also don’t. They’re interested not only in the broad strokes of history, people writ large, but also in the small stories, sons, moms, slow pans, fiddle music. When I finally nod off, it’s to sweet dreams of Broadway dancing in my head.

But then one day, about a year after I began writing the script, the pages piling up in my desktop printer, and with just a few more scenes of personal and societal hardship to go, I make the mistake of clicking one Wikipedia hyperlink too many, which takes me to an entry with the somewhat inscrutable heading “Draft Riots.” Up to now, this would not have been all that remarkable, given the countless riots against the Irish: the Gordon Riots, the Bible Riots, the Know-Nothing Riots. They are many, they are brutal, and they span continents. But none of these had ever felt germane enough to include in my play, except as a possible aside from an ancillary character, a street sweeper perhaps, quickly checking the box of historical veracity and moving on. What I’m reading about now, however, is unlike anything I’ve read about before. In front of me, glowing on my computer screen in a no-nonsense font, are those very riots that I had heard about way back in 1992, while sitting on my mother’s lap in the living room, listening as the reporters mentioned, in passing, that the violence in L.A., as immense as it might be, was the second-worst riot in American history. As for the worst, the place had been New York City, the time had been 1863, and the rioters had been the Irish, who had destroyed the city—arson, looting, beating, murder—and the police had been unable to stop them, because the police were being beaten too. The further I scroll, the worse it gets, four days long, with the crowning emblem of brutality being the burning to the ground of the Colored Orphan Asylum, on Fifth Avenue. Suddenly I’m no longer the oppressed, but I’m the oppressor too. And I recall that quote from Sophocles, that I had first learned in college, but never fully understood, and yet retained all these years for some reason. “Who is the slayer,” he had asked, “who is the victim?”

I’ve lived my entire life in New York City, but if I’ve ever passed a memorial dedicated to the event, I don’t remember it. If I’ve ever seen a plaque for the Black man who’d been lynched on Clarkson Street, in the West Village, I don’t remember that either. Nor do I remember ever learning that the first draft in American history had been ordered by Lincoln during the Civil War, but with one significant caveat: You could exempt yourself by paying $300 or by hiring a substitute to fight in your place. In other words, only the poor were conscripted, and in New York City in 1863, nearly a quarter of the population. This was the barefaced injustice that had set the most destructive riot in American history in motion, but if I had been taught about any of that in my high school history class, I must not have been paying attention.

Neither apparently had my director, whom I’m meeting at a Starbucks in Midtown to discuss the play for the first time, six months of grueling rewrites later, weeknights and weekends. We’re sitting across from each other, and the finished script sits between us on the table, 100 pages that I’ve poured my heart into, and upon which she has casually rested her coffee cup. Both of us are in business-casual attire and sensible shoes, because we’re on our lunch break from our respective day jobs, and we make self-conscious theatrical small talk for a while to avoid the matter at hand. Have you seen this play? Have you seen that play? Finally, the director takes a big, bracing sip from her coffee cup, places it back down on the top of my script, foam on her lips, and says, “You’ve got yourself another Hamilton.

She means an unflinching portrait of America, sans music, of course. I’m so caught off guard, so overcome with gratitude, that I fear I might sob.

“Have you seen Hamilton?” she asks me.

“No,” I say, “but I’ve always wanted to.”

“You should,” she says.

“I will!” I say.

She goes on, effusively, telling me how she read my play in one sitting, how she then read it again. “I read it with a pencil in my hand,” she says, “and I didn’t make one suggestion.” She’s talking about scope, she’s talking about sensibility. She’s talking about the scene in which Billy can’t get a job as a longshoreman because he’s Irish, and the scene in which he can’t get a job at the Novelty Iron Works, and the scene in which the textile merchant offers him $300 to fight in his place.

“So unjust,” she says.

I’m waiting for more accolades, but we’re short on time, 10 minutes left to be exact, and as we sip our lukewarm coffee she says, before she forgets, that she does have a few minor comments, specifically about the character of Billy, minor things really, mostly concerning his transformation at the end of the play, from mild-mannered mama’s boy to enraged, prognathous-jawed grown man running shirtless through the streets of New York City, one of thousands, fueled by a lifetime of self-loathing and humiliation, terrified of being sent to a war against his will, an unapologetic participant in the violence from start to finish, beating, burning, looting all the way to the last scene, when he turns down Clarkson Street.

“Are you sure you want your protagonist to be an antihero?” she asks me, which is another way of saying unlikable. “I’m just trying to consider it from all angles,” she says, but mainly she’s trying to consider it from the angle of the audience, who, according to her, won’t be rooting for Billy, personal injustices notwithstanding. She’s thinking long-term, she’s thinking box-office appeal, she’s thinking about a future outside the basement theater. I appreciate this. After all, she says, if the audience isn’t happy, the producer won’t be either. By the way, she knows someone who knows a producer who might be interested. I appreciate this, too.

“It’s in my DNA,” I tell her. I’m referring to victim and slayer.

“DNA?” she says.

Antigone,” I say.

“I haven’t seen it,” she says.

“You should,” I say.

“It won’t take much rewriting,” she says. What’s one more rewrite, when you’ve already done a thousand?

“What’s one more swing of the artistic pendulum?” I say.

“Pendulum?” she says. Her coffee cup has left a big circular ring on my script.

“I’ll think about it,” I tell her, and I mean it, because I can see her point, but mostly because I can see the fork in the road of my theater career, where one path leads through the streets of Midtown to my temp job, finally giving my boss two-weeks notice. He’ll say, “I always knew you were going to be a playwright.” But I can also hear the soundtrack of Malcolm X’s voice, still running through my head from all those hours of YouTube videos, telling me, “Billy, I have more respect for a man who lets me know where he stands, even if he’s wrong, than the one who comes up like an angel and is nothing but a devil.”

No, Malcolm, don’t worry, I’m not going to sugarcoat the past. Never mind Billy’s unlikability. Never mind Billy ever making it to Broadway. Now is not the time to flinch. Besides, the real problem with the script, as far as I’m concerned, is that I’ve bitten off way more than the basement theater can chew. Because it’s one thing to write a play while sitting in your apartment staring at your computer screen, and it’s another thing to stage a play, and I can see, before the first rehearsal has even begun, that I’ve created a world that’s going to be wholly impossible to convey. Here we all are, a cast of 20, plus the director and me, gathered together in a room with 40 seats, 12 fluorescent lights, and zero budget. There’s not going to be a tenement or a blue dress or spools of thread at 10 cents each. I’m going to be entirely dependent, as I have been throughout my entire so-called career, on the ability of the actors to bring to life what’s nonexistent—sets, props, everything—and on the audience to fill in the rest of the blanks. But laying a towel down on a stage and declaring it a beach is not the same as trying to portray a society from the bottom up. “You need three things in the theater,” went the famous maxim that I had learned in college: “the play, the actors, and the audience, and each must give something.” It had seemed profound to me at the time, and also irrelevant, given that we had a 400-seat theater and tuition dollars to spare on production. Now I need the maxim more than ever.

“I love your play,” the actors tell me, one after the other, mouths half-full with first-rehearsal muffins that I’ve paid for. They know people who know producers. They use their yellow highlighters to write down phone numbers on my script along with smiley faces of optimism. I have the feeling that the actors, at least the lesser ones, are angling for bigger roles if anyone quits for something that pays in the Catskills. If so, they’re doing a good job. But no one’s going to be quitting this time. No, this time they’re all in for two weeks of rehearsals for one performance in the basement.

The second problem I have is that I don’t appreciate the actor who’s playing me. Lying in bed at night, I’d let myself imagine which leading man would be cast as Billy, starting with Bradley Cooper. Instead, the director has decided on a balding, heavyset, blue-eyed, blond-haired replica of myself. “He studied at Juilliard,” she tells me. “I hope so,” I say. “I love your play,” he says, crumbs on his face. I want to ask him how many muffins he’s already eaten. As for the actress who’s been cast as my mom, she doesn’t look anything like her, which is probably for the best. She’s taller, she’s thinner, she’s 22 playing 42. So in addition to everything else, the audience is going to have to fill in the blanks of age. She’s brought with her a dictionary of the Civil War, which impresses me. She’s never heard of the Draft Riots either. “I never paid attention in high school,” she says.

This turns out to be the perfect icebreaker for rehearsal No. 1, and the actors go around introducing themselves, each one saying who they are, what part they’re playing, and how this history is news to them. I’m beginning to see the results of my hard work—all those hyperlinks, all those rewrites—sitting before me in the flesh. There’s Horace Greeley, white, the founder of the New York Daily Tribune, which will be set on fire; and James McCune Smith, Black, the owner of a pharmacy on West Broadway, which will also be set on fire; and Officer John Alexander Kennedy, white, who will be caught on 46th Street and beaten nearly to death; plus the merchants, the tycoons, the abolitionists, hiding in their homes, praying that the rioters pass by.

And there are the maids, the prostitutes, the rag pickers, all with their myriad contradictions and allegiances. Every person here is based on fact, but no one is just a person; they are types—except my mom and I, of coursein the spirit of Brecht’s epic theatre, which I’d studied in college, and in which every emotion manifests itself as a set of social relations. Or was it commedia dell’arte? Whatever the case, everyone is a fantastic actor, and that’s all that really matters when it comes down to it, and the play right now is exactly how I’d envisioned it, budget or no budget, fluorescent lights rising on the actress, 20 years too young for the role, but so what, she’s every version of my mom, today, yesterday, yesteryear, Act I, Scene i, standing center stage, twirling in that blue dress of hers that she’s made by hand. Who cares that it’s just a first rehearsal with no audience? I don’t need an audience. I’m an audience of one. It’s winter. It’s war. She’s staring at me with those blue eyes of hers. Come to think of it, maybe my mom and I were only ever types, too. “Do I look beautiful?” she asks me.