The Emotions of Angels

…and her name was Deborah Fleischman

Prior to 1985 I was the kid everyone hated to see in a performance. If smart phones had existed back then, my infamous meltdowns would have been the stuff that viral videos are made of. Church, school functions, family gatherings, it didn’t matter; there was going to be a sea of tears. I remember standing on the stage and feeling like everyone was staring at me with their staring eyes…even though I wasn’t singing the solo, or saying a part, or even remotely engaged. Such a feeling would cause my head to spin, and I would cry…like a “get her off the stage” kind of cry.

…and her name was Deborah Fleischman

By the time I was to start Kindergarten, my parents decided to enroll me at the Academy for Academics and Arts…a performing arts school…what? I am absolutely certain that everyone was confused at my parents’ decision. As an adult, I now realize that my parents, who were both teachers at the school, brought me there to keep me close. I get it now…nobody got it then.

…and her name was Deborah Fleischman

I think I intrigued her when I wandered into her classroom, a curious five year old, and asked her in a very confident voice where the drums were. Having received a tour from my father earlier, his northern accent got the best of him when he said the word “drama” and I immediately assumed it was the band room.

….and her name was Deborah Fleischman

and she let out a hearty laugh, and then immediately corrected my diction and pronunciation. Her red hair, as bright as her personality, cascaded onto her shoulders as we engaged in conversation. She introduced herself to me, making sure I could pronounce her last name with as much ease as I pronounced my own.

…and her name was Deborah Fleischman

and I would visit her every day after school to hang with this amazing redheaded woman. I’d watch as she and my mother prepared music for different performances; I’d watch as she would turn a bare stage into any place in the real or fictional world; I’d watch how she could take kids, who had never seen the bright lights of the stage, and turn them into Tony Award winning performers. This woman was a genius…

…and her name was Deborah Fleischman.

“No, Deb!” I heard my mother say from the piano. I was standing on the empty school stage, having wandered up there after one of their after school rehearsals, and stood center. My mother had her elbow on the closed piano, and my favorite redheaded woman sat on the front row, her eyes wide with a fantastic idea.

“I think she can do it.” She replied to my mother. (To date being on a very short list of people that could successfully challenge my mother’s stubbornness besides my dad.)

“Deb,” my mother said sitting up, “it’s a terrible idea. She’s never made it through one performance. Not one.” My mother was correct. Consequently, my parents had just put me on stage to sing at church…the failure of such a venture was embarrassingly and epically massive. “It’s not a good idea.”

…and her name was Deborah Fleischman

…and she stared at me, her classic smile slowly appearing. My mother knew that look, threw up her hands and turned back toward the piano.

“I’m doing a show,” she said to me from the theatre floor, “And it’s called ‘Mr. Grumpy’s Toy Shoppe.’ And I want you to be the littlest angel in the show.”

Even at the age of five, I scoffed at the idea. I knew my track record. I knew that I hated being in front of people. I didn’t know the word “introvert,” but I knew I was one, and I wanted none of this ‘performing’ that this redhead was so excited about.

I glanced over at my mother who was making the exact same face that I make as an adult when I don’t believe something is possible. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in me, it was just that history had proven this was quite possibly the worst idea of all ideas. Danita on stage, acting on cue—and singing? It was laughable.

…but her name was Deborah Fleischman

I turned back to her, my five-year-old eyes already welling up with tears at the thought of standing in front of people; my stomach turning at the idea of being underneath the lights, my head hurting at the thought of being subjected to applause. I wanted no parts of this.

“What will you do when I cry?” I asked her.

…and her name was Deborah Fleischman

and she was on the stage in one step, lifting me up into her arms so that she could look me directly in the eyes…

I didn’t know then, that this woman was going to change my life. I didn’t know that she was going to introduce me to something I currently cannot live without. I didn’t know that under her she would introduce me to Billie and her strange fruits, or show me why Ntozake believed colored girls considered suicide. I had no inkling that she’d teach about Duke and his sophisticated ladies, or give me lyrics to prove that I wasn’t misbehavin’ . I had no earthly clue that she would set me on a path past August’s fence, or have me sing a song about longing to be back home in Kansas. I was unaware that she would charge me to be a better artist, often times kissing me on my forehead and leaving the remnants of her familiar red lipstick for all to see. I was oblivious to the fact that one day, even from my own director’s chair, I’d call her for advice…and guidance. I didn’t realize that her presence in my life would be so great that she would help with my sweet sixteen, make appearances at my college shows, and walk down the aisle at my wedding.

She would become like another mother to me…and I had no idea

At that moment, I was a kindergartner, nose to nose with this redheaded woman, waiting for her to answer my question.

…and her name is Deborah Fleischman

“What will you if I cry?” I asked.

“When you’re off stage you’re Danita,” she said inches from my face. “But when you’re on stage you’re an angel; and angels don’t cry.”

Thirty-two years ago this month, The first “Mr. Grumpy’s Toy Shoppe” premiered in the Fleischman Theatre on Poplar Avenue with an all star K-8th grade cast…and a tiny, five-year-old angel, that didn’t shed one tear.

I would go on to play an angel every time “Grumpy’s” was produced; finally playing the lead angel my last year at the school. And every time I was backstage preparing for my entrance (after the snowflakes) I’d repeat that unforgettable phrase.

I still use that mantra. Every time I get in front of an audience, every time I sing a solo in church, every time I have to perform outside of my comfort zone… I softly repeat to myself, “Angels don’t cry.”

Her name is Deborah Fleischman; Still the genius, still changing my life, still shaping the artist that I am, every time I step into her presence.

Cleveland and Antoinette Wilson made me the woman I am today…

…but her name is Deborah Fleischman

and she made me an artist.

Happy Final “Grumpy’s” Run, ‘Glinda.’

Love,
The Original ‘Littlest Angel’

-Danita LaShelle

 

 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Brilliant.

    Like

  2. Karen Lathon-Campbell says:

    Awesome story line, love the child-like aspect of the story. Thank you for sharing!

    Like

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