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 The irony of being in the original cast of a show like “Motown the Musical” is that although we helped re-create Hitsville on stage every night, I had to leave the show before I was able to visit the real one.   Further irony is that the tour of another legendary musical icon put me in Detroit, home of the house where Berry Gordy made history.

            Even the Uber cab ride had symmetry. The driver happened to be a black man in his 60’s who, long before realizing his gospel calling, auditioned at Hitsville for a recording contract.  I didn’t have to tell him how to get there now.

Jamal flipping outside of Hitsville U.S.A.

            A large party of teenagers, maybe twenty or so deep, were being ushered into the museum by their chaperones when I arrived.   Figuring it would be a good idea to let them get sorted first, I waited until all admission had been paid before learning that tours happened every half hour on the hour and sold out frequently.  The only one I could fit on (and still make it to the hotel in time for show call) was at capacity with the young ladies.

            “No worries,” I said to the ticket window agent. “I probably don’t need the tour, I was in the show on Broadway. But it’s still worth it to come.”

            I cruised the store instead, excited to see a few "Motown: the Musical" t-shirts that are still being sold in the lobby of the Lunt Fontanne Theater now.  Just as I positioned my phone to take a shot of a shirt I wish cast members had access to back home, the woman from the window tapped me on the shoulder, explained the no-photo policy in the gift store too, and insisted that I join the tour.

            “Since you were in the show it would be criminal not to see this.”

            I stood in the back of the small theater packed with the teenagers, a few of them wondering about the tardy interloper.

            The tour guide, an almond-colored woman named Peggy with skin much younger than she, gave us an extraordinary, rapidly paced but careful trek through the life of Berry Gordy, crash coursing us in his father’s print business and grocery store, the $800 loan from the family account and the corresponding paperwork framed on the wall, the Gloved One’s 1983 introduction of the Moonwalk along with the encased glove he donated.  To listen to an oral version of the history I was once endowed with the responsibility of presenting on stage every night was fascinating.

            I tried to remain incognito in this group so as not to disrupt the tour. I was doing fine until Peggy led us in “Rockin’ Robin” so that we could experience the value of bathroom acoustics that led to Gordy’s innovative recording studio rigging.

            I had been singing full belt on stage every night with Cher, singing like nobody could hear me (because they couldn’t) during the last minute of “Believe." So Rockin’ Robin was cake.

            Two of the young ladies turned around with that look, the one that happens when someone recognizes decent pitch and a smidgen of training.

            I shut up instantly.

            Then Peggy asked them about Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The young ladies sang the song well and knew all the words better than I.   One of the chaperones explained that this was the junior high school portion of a group of music students who would perform a full-scale Motown concert in a week.

            What are the odds?

            But by the time we got to the Hitsville lobby, where secretary Martha Reeves' appointment pad still sat, I worried I would need to leave early.  I introduced myself to Peggy and explained that I was in the Broadway production and loved her tour, and not to take my exit as a lack of interest.

            “Thank you so much,” she said. “What show are you doing now?”

            “I’m here with Cher. The show is tonight, which is why I have to dash soon.”

            “Well then I’ll see you tonight on stage!”

            You’re kidding.  What are the odds?  “That’s fantastic.”

            “There’s not much left of this,” she said. “If you’re still around, do you mind if I acknowledge you?”

            “Not at all.”

            With the same seamless flow we had enjoyed the rest of the time, Peggy segued her Studio A description into a discussion about Berry Gordy’s legacy continuing on Broadway. The students were excited to know that there was a performer from the show around, and that they…suspected all along?

            “I knew you were in a show!” one of them said. 
            "And then I heard you make comments, and I thought he's really knows his stuff," another said.
            Had my interior monologue made it out of its haven? 

            Then I figured out it was just a residual of this quite surreal feeling of having moved on from the musical without leaving the family or the legacy in the least.

            I took several pictures with the students outside in front of the Hitsville sign before realizing that I could not leave without taking a solo shot.   After all, here I was, marveling at the sturdiness of the tendon connecting where I am now with where I was a few months ago. It needed to be captured, and in a way that my extraordinary Motown dance colleagues would never forget...

            But the kids had already boarded the bus, and they were the only ones born with the necessary in-brain microchip to capture with a phone the shot I had in mind. A lovely woman named Dishonda stood with her good friend and agreed to try.

            I showed it to her one time.

            It takes 1.8 second to do a standing back tuck.

            Yes somehow, Dishonda caught me upside down, mid-flip smiling at the camera. Twice.

           So the Hitsville serendipity had gone further: although she had no training in it whatsoever, her father is a noted photographer. 
           The entire experience, as well as this picture with the Temptations seeming to present me, was affirming. It reminds me that my purpose in Motown was spring water clear and carved specifically with me in mind, despite the fact that singing is not (as my co-dance captain Dionne put it) really my ministry at all.  It cemented for me that my tenure there was and is still important, and that my foray back to Cher touring is right on time.  It made the day as brilliant as the blue on the Hitsville marquee. 
           And, as promised, I saw Peggy after the concert. 




 We train our bodies for years and years to obey whatever challenging, sometimes dangerous instructions we give them. We fight to make things happen that should be reserved for other bodies, like those of cheetah or gazelles for example, or perhaps a snake/elephant hybrid, all so that we can manage simple and impossible things on stage for the delight and transformation of a person’s life/soul/spirit. 

            Unfortunately, props don’t invest in the same training. They do what they want, behave as they feel, mis-listen to our needs, fold their arms in defiance.   Investigations of how they work do not prove lucrative—for those of us not blessed with the good karma of prop handling magic, things go wrong.

            I am one of those people.

Photo Courtesy of  John Wren

            I’m not sure if Sumayah is hostage to my bad prop karma or sabotaged by her own, but what’s clear is that umbrellas are not her friend.

            The first time it went wrong in “Burlesque” during tech rehearsal, her prop umbrella, which is rigged to not close shut all the way (since there is no time in the choreography to fiddle with the sharp button on its stem), wouldn’t open either.   We both rendezvous off-stage right near the stairs, me to make an entrance, her to grab her umbrella and re-enter. During the tech, she couldn’t find her umbrella because someone we have yet to identify moved it to a position on the stairs.

            As planned, I had grabbed the other umbrella to give to Ryan as I enter, since she has less time, and I watched Sumayah in horror search for her prop.

            “Where is my—I set it right here before this run!”

            “It’s right there,” I said, mid Fosse step fluttering my hand toward the stairs.

            This helped her none, of course.

            Determined to be a better friend during the actual show in front of people (18,000 of them in Phoenix, to be specific), I grabbed both umbrellas out of the holster and handed one to her when she ran to get it. 

            In the hasty world of quick entrances and exits and props, there is little time for "Thank you."  So I accepted the general smile of her aura about this consideration.

            The split second was decimated by the revelation that her umbrella stem was broken. When it got broken, how it broke, whether it tried hara kiri because it was done with us, we don’t know.  Just that it was broken.  And that when she pulled the handle, it detached from the rest of the stem.

            Sumayah then proceeded to go out with her very abbreviated prop and work the short stem like a pro.  She kicked her legs over it, pretended it could actually provide the kind of shade it was really meant for vs. the kind it was giving.  She pushed it over her head as if it were “Wade in the Water” high vs. just off her ear...

       I had to stop looking. Because you see this is when the demon of laughter commences to take you out of your show.  All I could think of is how she had a shady umbrella. Ella. Ella. Eh, eh, eh.

        But then, the next night, I picked her up and swung her down around my waist, and my hat fell off, and I thought she maybe caught it in her other hand perhaps (desperation)...

            Karma. Prop Karma. 
            And an oversized hat with an attitude...




At the time, I could come up with no good reason to order a large popcorn instead of the medium or the small, especially since I had whisked myself solo to watch Roman reputation be torn asunder cinematically for the second time this weekend.  Who was I fooling? I had even less business seeing “Pompeii” than I did ordering popcorn to satisfy my inner FB - if you don’t know what that stands for in this case, it’s safer you not know it applies to me.

           The woman behind the counter must have known. Maybe she saw my desire, my instant recollection of the downtown Phoenix AMC’s version of butter from my gluttony with it during “300: Rise of the Empire” a few days back. Now, I asking if the butter was self-serve, as if I didn't know.  She said yes.

            A beat.

            “Would you like me to dump half of it out so that you can butter it through?” she added.

            I nodded, embarrassed about my transparency, and then had the nerve to be sparing in my application—twice.

            By the end of the 98-minute festive disaster flick, I took the half of the bag of popcorn that I did not (and knew I wouldn't) eat, gathered it by its neck and sauntered the five blocks back to the hotel.

            Downtown Phoenix is quiet at night.  It's lonely, save a light wind with no particular destination, nor hurry to get there.  Lovely buildings, unblemished pavement.  And absolutely nobody on the streets. This night, I saw not even a random homeless person, odd since there was no abusive weather to hide from.

             Then one particular homeless man in a wheelchair made me understand the rulings of my gut.

            He had a long, clear face framed by gray hair that looked less matted than simply age appropriate.

            “Do you happen to have any change?” he asked.

            There was a casual tone, nothing ominous, desperate, or duplicitous in it. He did not appear high, drunk or mad at the world for his circumstances. The whites of his eyes showed none of the dramatic hope I had just witnessed in “Pompeii,” but they lacked expectation.

            “I don’t,” I said. “But I do have half a bag of popcorn.” I grabbed one last handful of popcorn and then extended the bag to him, knowing absolutely he would take it. “It’s good.”

            “Thank you sir.”

            I understood in that moment why I ordered the large popcorn, and it relieved me to have listened to the divine instruction instead of shooing it as bad judgment. Turns out, it was not mine to make.  God had plans, and I was the executive vessel.

             I know, it's crazy, but go with me on this one for a minute. The payoff is often invisible: the times that the car doesn’t hit you when it could have, or when the brown recluse is diverted elsewhere, or when the cancer you never had the displeasure of knowing about dies first. Surely, these are balances for our right-doings. I am thankful every day for the thousands of times my life, my career, my loved ones are spared.  

           But rarer is the instant gratification in understanding my compliance with God’s good will had tangible, visible effect: this time a homeless man in a vacant downtown connected with the one passer-by who had food. Yes, he asked for money, but I'm sure it's because he didn't know I had food; Lord knows there is almost nothing open in downtown Phoenix after ten that he could have used the change for. 

           Other than perhaps popcorn at the movie theater. 

           The rest of my walk was slower, more relaxed even. And now it was okay for me to admit my appetite for disaster[ous] flicks. 

            And [fake]buttered popcorn.