Baltimore's people theater takes center stage

January 22, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

ALL OF MY LIFE I've been a devotee of people theater, the art that showcases the little human dramas of ordinary life. With a background of Baltimore, I've watched the show of character, story and dialogue unfold without having to pay the tariff of a Morris Mechanic or Center Stage.

Some of the most bravura performances were enacted on the oak and pine floors of the old house on Guilford Avenue where I lived for 20-some years. The players were all my family. They lived to tell a good story. All you needed was an audience -- and with 12 at home, we had that.

The best thing about people theater is that it is so everyday and authentic. At its best, it is about the joy of living and the ability to communicate a rollicking situation, rendered with attention to detail and plenty of social commentary. I've heard it said that this type of household dialogue is a peculiarly Southern invention. If so, the rest of the country should follow suit.

The situation was often like this: someone got an invitation to a party or social event. Or, they just went downtown, shopping along Greenmount Avenue or to church.

Later in the day, when they returned, there was a monologue offered of what happened on their adventure. Not just a drab, facts-only version, but a big-as-life description of everything from the rudeness of the cab driver to the cost and source of the hostess' dress. The dress would have to be positively identified. Was it from Hutzler's or the Charles Room? Was it tailored at home? Or, better yet, was it bought out of town?

The guests who spoke that night had their conversations repeated the next day. And these accounts were not catty or mean. Pettiness went against the spirit of this operation. And yet these were the stories that never made it into any newspaper or magazine.

They were not, strictly speaking, gossip, but they were well-reported social commentary, delivered in a theatrical style.

I think of the time great Aunt Cora went to a friend's child's wedding and reception. During the event, some thief rifled her purse and made off with her cash. The Brinks robbery was no less important than her experience.

My mother loved parties and any kind of people gathering. She could work a room from a table, where she invariably sat and smoked a chain of Lucky Strikes. The guests sought her out and chatted.

The next morning, we had an account better than any society column. My mother was good at keeping a secret, but she was even better at her powers of observation.

An afternoon walk to the Guilford Pharmacy, along with a seat in a booth, a milkshake or lemon Coke and pretzel stick, offered a novel-full of story possibilities. So did a word of a death or illness or, better yet, an observed act of unruly behavior.

People theater only works when there's an audience to soak up the story. And I think that was why these stories played as well as they did. Their telling was a way of involving others -- and often making their day a lot brighter.

Not everyone got the invitation to the really good party, the one at the Suburban Club where the baby lamb chops were ooh soooh good.

But you could hear about the event, down to the print on the napkins and flower petal.

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