Finding new life on stage

After a stroke robbed Maya Redfearn of her sight, the aspiring star had to learn how to dream again

May 13, 2007|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun Reporter

She heard the flutter of programs and the audience murmuring, but even when the stage lights clicked on, Maya Redfearn saw nothing. No shadows, no silhouettes. Blindness is like that, a velvet curtain that never rises.

And yet, alone on stage one night a week ago, Maya knew it was nearly time to begin.

She could feel the eyes on her, hundreds of them. Her family was there. So were church friends and a few former classmates who still live in the Baltimore area. Everyone was wondering what she would do with this, her first public performance without sight. Would she remember her cues, manage to dance with her white cane, connect with the crowd the way she used to?

And would she sing the song the stroke had stolen from her?

They would see soon enough. Maya's voice felt warm and powerful, like an engine in her throat.

Powerful dream

Effie Melody White. Her very name was music to Maya, who'd always felt that Effie was the part she was born to play.

A central character in the musical Dreamgirls, Effie is the lead singer in a Motown-styled group until her dreams of stardom slip away. Through it all, though, her voice retains its power. Her signature song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," is loud enough to chatter teeth, ragged to the point of unraveling, and belted from the depths of the soul. Singing it won Jennifer Holliday a Tony in 1982, and Jennifer Hudson an Oscar this year.

Maya had that kind of voice. It didn't blend well with a chorus; her college gospel choir director once described it to an alumni magazine as "a brick through a plate-glass window" and "an absolute shot between the eyes." A voice with horsepower. A volcanic voice.

And yet, when Maya read in the newspaper last year that Dreamgirls was being staged at Coppin State University, she almost didn't try out.

Even though she was healthy then, she was no longer sure she was worthy of the part. Four years after graduating with a degree in theater arts from McDaniel College in Westminster, the 25-year-old was managing a McDonald's. It had been two years since she'd set foot on stage, two years without show tunes or Shakespeare, the stuff she'd been performing since high school. Her ambition to be a Broadway actress seemed to be on hold, maybe forever.

But Maya still felt like the child who grew up bellowing gospel songs with her father in an East Baltimore basement, and the girl who would wake up from the deepest sleep to dance if her favorite single came on the radio. Even as she assembled Big Macs, Maya would sing at the top of her lungs, taking customer requests in between Happy Meal orders.

So she worked up her courage and tried out for the show, hoping for a bit part. On March 3, 2006, a Friday, she shrieked over the news that she would play Effie. Rehearsals started that Monday.

On Sunday the headache began.

The pain was sudden and obliterating, anchored at the base of her skull. She put Icy Hot on her neck and lay in bed. In agony, she pulled out strands of her hair.

Her head hurt so much that, over the next few days, Maya barely noticed how strange the world had begun to look. Even in broad daylight, it was as if she was in the heart of a smoky club - she recognized the outlines of people but not their faces. She could see the headlights of cars but not their colors. Everything seemed coated with a thin black film.

Instead of attending rehearsal on Monday, Maya went to the emergency room. The doctors thought she had a viral infection and prescribed medication. By Thursday she wasn't feeling any better, but decided to go to practice anyway. She was afraid of losing her chance to play Effie.

Act your way through this pain, she told herself.

Somehow she lasted until the end of the rehearsal, holding the lyrics to "Cadillac Car" up close to her face so she could sing them. The world dimmed with each passing minute. Another actress was wearing a shirt with words on it; afterward Maya would remember them as the last she would ever read.

"No More Drama," the shirt said.

She was in the emergency room of the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute two days later when something in her brain slammed shut, and the lights went out.

Through the darkness

Maya's world was black as midnight, black as dreamless sleep, and depression made it blacker still. Her boyfriend had left her; she'd lost her job and her apartment. She couldn't go anywhere without clinging to her mother's arm.

People thought Maya cried for what she'd lost. Really, though, she cried for what she'd almost had. She cried for Dreamgirls.

When she awoke in the hospital a week after the blackout, she had still thought she could play Effie. She was very sick, and knew it, but she also had a plan to keep the part. Her two younger sisters would attend the rehearsals, then teach Maya the songs and dances back at the hospital. As soon as her sight came back she'd be set to go.

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