Americans of all political persuasions were biting their nails this past Tuesday as the Presidential returns came in, but most of us could at least shout what was on our minds at the TV set as individual states turned red or blue. The cast of South Pacific did not have that luxury. For them, Election 2008 was a working night, though not quite like any other working night.
How did the actors react on- and off-stage amidst all the building hoopla? "I was just thinking about staying in character," said 10-year-old Laurissa Romain, who plays Ngana, "even though I was super-excited about the election. At intermission I called my mom [Laurie Sheppard], asking 'Did it happen yet? Did it happen yet?'"For the daughters of the President-elect, an Obama victory brought a puppy. For Romain, it meant something else: during that intermission phone call, she asked her mom, "If Obama wins can we buy a Carvel ice-cream cake to celebrate?"
Greg Roderick, one of SP's swing actors, agreed with Romain that "as we stepped onstage, we would put our thoughts and excitement on a shelf in order to focus on our performance." But, he adds, "At almost every dressing station backstage there was a laptop with results coming in, hitting 'refresh' between scenes. Word would spread:Pennsylvania! Ohio!"
Garrett Long, the show's Ensign Sue Yaeger, got her results from a computer backstage in the Stage Manager's office. She remembers the night this way: one minute, you were hearing candidates' names; the next, you "walked into a world where Obama was a name you had never heard of."
South Pacific normally comes down at around 11, and if that had been the case on Tuesday the Presidential result would have happened have during the curtain call. (That's what occurred next door at the Metropolitan Opera, where an audience member at the curtain call announced, "Obama won!," setting off a "Rite of Spring" mini-riot.) But because Tuesday night had a 7 pm start-up, and the show finished at 10, many of the cast walked across the street to O'Neal's restaurant to watch further returns.
At O'Neal's, the Obama announcement set off some of the same reactions it did worldwide. Garrett Long says there were "tears and excitement,"and Greg Roderick noted "the profound sense of history and celebration amongst our cast."
Eight-year-old Luka Kain, who plays Jerome, heard the news at home with his mother, Lisa Calli. He said: "I screamed so loud I sounded like a girl! I thought about the song 'Carefully Taught' and I knew for sure that you are not born with racism and that America just proved that."
Zachary James, meanwhile, who hits the visceral low note in "Nothing Like A Dame," hadn't gone to O'Neals because he was feeling a little under the weather; he was home making soup when the result was announced. In between the phone calls from family and friends, he tuned into C-SPAN, where one announcer predicted a rise in the number of people who would, in Obama's America, choose to serve their country. "For the first time in my life," James said, "I thought of what we do as performers as a way of serving our country. We entertain. We provide joy. And with the story of South Pacific, we remind ourselves how far we have come."
Darius Nichols, an original South Pacific/LCT cast member who has been filling in the past few weeks for Mike Evariste in the role of Tom O'Brien, was also at home when the big news hit the TV screen. And how did it affect his performance the next day? "Basically, I felt the need to play the story just as it was written," Nichols said. "I felt that the audience needed to experience the journey people of color in this country have taken so far. What happened on Tuesday has the most significance if you know the history."
As for how other members of the cast felt during the show the day after the election, the kids were not to be denied their chance for expression.. Kain said: "I felt more proud of our country and the show meant more because it's brave. Obama is smart and I feel I could be more like him because I'm mixed and my Mom is a single mom, too. I know I could grow up to be President someday."
Like Kain, Laurissa Romain is a biracial child who in South Pacific plays a biracial child, and she also had the long view in her mind. "It was history that an African-American was elected President," she remarked, "and South Pacific deals with racism." Romain said that on Election Night playing the show's final scene had an almost otherworldly meaning for her. "When Kelli O'Hara, as Nellie, says to me there's going to be a big change, she had tears in her eyes." At home an hour later (enjoying the Carvel cake she was promised; it had balloons), Romain said, "I knew it was true."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com