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Finding heroes in our midst

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The instruction was to turn to our neighbor and tell a brief story of a hero in our lives.

We were sitting down to the salon supper following the “part live concert, part concept album” performance of "Waterboy and the Mighty World," at the NACL Theater on Thursday night.  Three singers/actors had told the story of Bass Reeves, the first African American deputy U.S. Marshall, in the style of the music of Odetta.

Close harmonies, exotic beats, mantras and dirges, the performance was the culmination of a week’s residence of the family trio: Justin Hicks, Kenita Miller-Hicks, and Jade Hicks. It will be performed at the Bushwick Starr from September 4 to 7. Tickets and info here: thebushwickstarr.org.

And there we were. An audience of people, seated at two large tables instructed to relate a quick story of a hero in our own lives.

We seemed to sit there blank faced. A hero’s story in our own lives?

I tried to pull out a memory about being in the company of a hero, and I couldn’t think of anything in the moment. And then I recalled going home from the Sea Bright Beach Club at Sandy Hook, NJ and witnessing a boy get hit by a car. I was around eight years old. The club was on one side of a two-lane street and you needed to cross it to get to the parking lot on the other side. Cars moved fairly slowly.

I remember hearing the car hit the boy and seeing him in the air for about 10 feet before falling onto the street. A man, perhaps my father, ran toward him, taking off his t-shirt as he ran, and wrapping it quickly around the boy’s head, which was bleeding.

“Stories are funny that way,” my neighbor replied.  “You remember the story but lose some of the details.” He was graciously responding to my lack of recollection whether the man was my father or not.

His story was about being a boy growing up in Nigeria and how, when he, too, was about eight, he met and became friends with a boy from Syria, following the first war in the 1980s. (My dinner neighbor, Femi Alao, is the Nigerian Minister of the Arts. He will spend the month of September and October at the UN. He had the spent the day teaching children at Bethel Woods).

“I had never met a refugee,” he said. “And he had a sister, like I had a sister and we were friends.”

He told me that the refugee family did not have any money and that his father had paid his friend’s tuition to school. And then he got to the hero’s part of the story.  

“There was a birthday party and my friend and his sister were invited. Everyone was very excited.

“We were all dressed to the nines,” he said. “Wearing our fanciest clothes.”

When his friend arrived, he and his sister were dressed in very good-looking ordinary clothes.

Femi said that his mother instructed him and his sister to go upstairs and put on their regular clothes. “She could have dressed my friend in my or my sister’s clothing, but instead had us change to our everyday clothes. We all had a lovely time.”

“You don’t often think of your mother as a hero. But that is my hero’s story.”

I agree with Femi. His mother with her gracious and empathetic hospitality was a hero. Asking her own children to change into ordinary day clothes in order for the refugee boy and sister to feel more comfortable is a heroic act of humanity.

It could have played the other way: She could have taken the refugee children upstairs and dressed them in her children’s fancy clothing. However, there is something about equalizing the dress that is affirming to the dignity of the other.

The affirmation of the best in people, the act of being a hero, was the subject of the performance. Through the reinterpretation of traditional songs and original compositions, “Waterboy and the Mighty World” explores the relationship between people of color and law enforcement in America. It sets a unique example in its telling of the story of Bass Reeves, the first African American deputy U.S. Marshall.

According to the liner notes: “Bass’s epic life story reads like a series of tall tales, complete with fascinating variations and speculative contributions throughout the years. He used cunning and wit to capture over 3,000 bandits. Fatally wounding just 14 of the thousands of suspects he brought in, Bass became an example of restraint and discernment in early American law enforcement.”

It was curious that I and the other companions around the supper table could not easily find hero’s tales in our lives. We wondered together whether you can be your own hero in your life.

When talking to Kenita Miller-Hicks after supper, she said that she, her husband and sister-in-law were exploring how to use their talents and musical interests to step up and explore the challenges that we face as a nation. Their way was to start conversations about heroes and exemplars that might help us re-connect to each other across ideological differences. And how important it was to be gentle and compassionate about how to communicate.

It is a hero’s journey.

So speaking of heroes: here’s a hero’s hello to Brad, Tracy and their crew at NACL for providing a space for these artists to incubate important artwork and theater that has the capacity to reach across divides and build a more cohesive and resilient future.

We can be the people and the heroes we are waiting for, uniquely contributing in our own way.

The Hawtplates can be found on social media at Instagram: thehawtplates and Facebook @thehawtplates.

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