Why I Became an Ape this Winter

This winter I have let myself go entirely. Here in Kodiak, since 
January 6, I have spent nearly every night on stage jumping, walking on my knuckles, grunting, pounding my chest, leaping off of tables, grooming nits from my ape children---in short, being an ape. I and my two youngest sons, along with a cast of about 40, are in the local production of “Tarzan.” (Opened last weekend. Plays one more weekend.) 

I know. Yes, Tarzan. At this point, some people in the conversation snicker, start doing a "George of the Jungle" yodel, or---if they've been around a few more decades than  me, they do a passable rendition of the iconic yell mastered by Johnny Weismiller.

 I laugh with them. But let me update you a bit. This is not your mother's Tarzan. Here's what Tarzan looks like now (the Broadway version. Ours is not so different . . All the following photos are from our own production. Photos by me, Heather Johnson and Pam Foreman)  

 There's so much that is funny and ironic about this: that the first winter I'm in town long enough to join a production, it's Tarzan. That this woman-of-words has abandoned language (except when we sing) and gone primal, discarding all my dignity, (and trying to hide the fact that I'm the oldest ape up there by an average of twenty years.) 

   And I have given up center stage and a microphone, where I am used to standing, to disappear in a choral flurry of ape fur, indistinguishable from all the others. It's been humbling. It's been grueling at times. It's been refreshing. 


But I did not leap into this play lightly, simply for my own entertainment. During the months of rehearsal, ISIS was beheading Christians, destroying historic villages and artifacts, visiting a kind of terror and barbarism unknown in most of our lifetimes.

Like so many others, during the day I wept, prayed, felt guilty for my freedoms and comfortable life---and at night, there I was on my hands and knees again, aping from one scene to another, singing "Shoo-wop-de-wop" as we trashed the human camp, concentrating to get my part right.

I wanted desperately to do something more than clasp hands in prayer---and more than crimp my hands in ape gestures, leading my ape children into safety in the jungle. What kind of work and play is this when brothers and sisters in the faith are being captured, tortured, driven from homes, brutally killed?

   Yet I have remained in the play. Without guilt. Realizing I am doing something that matters, that my aping around, even now, when lives are being taken, matters. 

The message of Tarzan can be summed up in its theme song title, “Two Worlds, One Family.” Even in rehearsal, tears have come to many of us as the young boy Tarzan works so hard to be acknowledged as the ape-leader’s son.  Kala, a mother ape who lost her own son to a leopard, adopts the baby Tarzan, and is forced out of the tribe to raise him. The leader of the tribe won’t accept him as one of their own.

      The play is about how we respond to those different from us. It’s about taking a strange child into a mother’s heart just because the child doesn’t have a mother---and needs one.  The father comes to accept him—though it is too late.  Jane and her professor father come from England and are accepted and adopted into the gorilla family.

A gun is involved. A tragic death, love is born, the guilty are caught, and two worlds are joined into a single family. This is a feel-good musical, but don’t dismiss it so quickly.

We need this play today.  “Beauty can save the world,” Dostoevsky has famously written. Indeed it can. Beauty through Art can save us by opening our hearts to our neighbors, bridging divides between gender, class, faith. Beauty both enlarges our own world, and it shrinks it as well, revealing our common humanness and frailties.  Thoreau asks, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” 

This happened every night in rehearsals:

       The best Art---all forms---instructs and moves our soul, both creating and feeding a hunger for the beautiful, the good and the true. I suspect that terrorists must vigilantly guard their hearts against Art of any kind. How threatening! Music, poetry, dance could enlighten, enlarge, and humanize. Tender, true movies could loosen the grip on a knife. Theatre could reveal that the "other" is much like you. Beauty can un-do us and make us new.

       I want ISIS stopped. I will not stop praying for the persecuted. But I am doing more than that. I will keep on working at what we've all been called to do since Adam and Eve: cultivating the garden in front of us, bringing beauty and goodness out of a weedy culture and a tangled creation. Discovering again and again that our neighbors are everywhere, and they look wonderfully different than us so we can learn the immeasurable shape of God's love.

Becoming an ape, dropping to my knees and my knuckles this winter, has reminded me of all this. 

Your culture making and neighbor-loving likely won't sound like this: 

Or look like this:

 But it will be beautiful. And it will bring Life and love to all who see. 



Friends, you've heard enough from me. Tell me one way YOU are Cultivating goodness in your house or neighborhood . . .