I was all of 16, new to the fancy convent school that stood formidable along the bayside waterfront and all to familiar with the knee length plaid jumper, starched white shirt and navy blue saddle shoes. I was looking to fit in, this being the tenth school in eleven years of my higher education; and not with the back row of transient students (read, bad girls and trouble makers) all of which I was well acquainted with.
One fine autumn day Sister Elizabeth announced the next forensic competition with events in poetry, drama and comedic interpretations of literary writings. I was on fire with enthusiasm. Here was my chance to show the whole school in one bold move that I would not be ignored. The biggest challenge was finding the right piece to catapult me towards fame amidst the drab convent walls. A simple story, humorously entertaining and with a bit of action. Something I could quickly memorize, featuring two characters so as not to tax my budding theatrical talents. It was a bold and frightening move, but Goethe had just inspired me to be bold for it contained power, genius and magic. Ah, to be 16 and so innocent.
My family had just moved south of the mason Dixon line where the southern drawls are a thing of beauty. I set about creating my own version of catholic school southern belle and it was from this affectation that the story sprang to mind. I skimmed through the card catalog in the school library and there it was, just what I was looking for, the folktales of the consummate trickster Brer Rabbit as told by S.E. Schlosser. I wanted the story of when Brer Rabbit is himself tricked by Brer Fox and the tar baby.
Well now, that rascal Brer Fox hated Brer Rabbit on account of he was always cutting capers and bossing everyone around. So Brer Fox decided to capture and kill Brer Rabbit if it was the last thing he ever did! He thought and he thought until he came up with a plan. He would make a tar baby! Brer Fox went and got some tar and he mixed it with some turpentine and he sculpted it into the figure of a cute little baby. Then he stuck a hat on the Tar Baby and sat her in the middle of the road.
I memorized the whole story, and such a good memory I had in those days. My southern accent literally oozed charm and decadence as Brer Fox lay in wait for Brer Rabbit to take the bait. I practiced in front of the bathroom mirror ignoring repeated poundings on the door from my angry brothers. Nothing was going to stop me from winning this competition. And so the day arrived when I was to step in front of a judge for the first time in my life. Would they notice the slight quiver in my voice as Brer Rabbit meets the tar baby?
"And how are you feeling this fine day?"
The Tar Baby, she said nothing. Brer Fox grinned an evil grin and lay low in the bushes.
Brer Rabbit frowned. This strange creature was not very polite. It was beginning to make him mad.
"Ahem!" said Brer Rabbit loudly, wondering if the Tar Baby were deaf. "I said 'HOW ARE YOU THIS MORNING?"
Waiting in the hallway to enter the room I watched my competition expound Shakespeare to the walls and most daunting of all, O'Henry's, Gift of the Magi. I could see the confidence ooze off of them and knew in an instant that I had made a grievous mistake; but there was no time to contemplate it further, the door swung open and my name was called.
"Are you deaf or just rude?" demanded Brer Rabbit, losing his temper. "I can't stand folks that are stuck up! You take off that hat and say 'Howdy-do' or I'm going to give you such a lickin'!"
The Tar Baby just sat in the middle of the road looking as cute as a button and saying nothing at all. Brer Fox rolled over and over under the bushes, fit to bust because he didn't dare laugh out loud.
"I'll learn ya!" Brer Rabbit yelled. He took a swing at the cute little Tar Baby and his paw got stuck in the tar.
I struggled with the imaginary tar baby as Brer Rabbit, then jumped aside to laugh hysterically as Brer Fox. When I would look out at the two judges, their eyes were wide with an incredulity that only comes from finding themselves faced with a most unexpected scene. A baby faced white girl-child interpreting old Uncle Remus's African American stories of a wily old rabbit.
I was working it too. I may even have broke a sweat dancing between the two characters. If my voice rose too high for the character it had to do with my concern over the lack of laughter I was hoping for from my audience. Yes, they smiled and listened to me, but restrained was an apt description and they would not give me the advantage no matter how well I drawled. Finally, done and spent, I gave a deep bow and left the room. The door opened behind me and I was called back in to receive the judges criticisms. Yes, they gave me high marks for my performance, but they questioned the quality of the story, I mean really, an old folk tale when there was so much great literature to choose from.
I asked them what constituted great literature if not a piece of work that is treasured and passed down from generation to generation? They sputtered a reply but had no answer for me. Later when the awards were handed out and Gift of the Magi took top honors I thought of Brer Rabbit and how he would have cocked his head at those judges, smiled his crooked smile and hopped on down the road. Not one to give up so easily, come Monday I was back in the library thumbing through the card catalog looking for my next performance masterpiece, O'Henry's, The Ransom of Red Chief.