There’s a weird mental bargain I’ve made as a fan of classic cinema: I’m a black female actor who longs
I had the TV on in the background this morning while I was being awfully domestic; folding laundry, washing dishes, and the like. A talk show host crowed out the “headline” that actress Melanie Griffith and her actor ex-husband Don Johnson have announced that they will not be seeing their daughter Dakota Johnson’s upcoming movie Fifty Shades of Grey when it opens in theaters. Fifty Shades is the film adaptation of the popular book series about a BDSM relationship that involves explicit sex scenes. I suppose the family’s announcement qualifies as news in that universe because there are multiple generations of celebrities involved, but it is really no big headline that parents may not want to see their daughter strapped to a bed and exploring alternative sex acts on the proverbial big screen, acting though she may be.
The book series, sensation though it was, has been panned by many consenting adults who know from BDSM as presenting neither accurate portrayals of consent nor BDSM. Therefore, if the movie follows suit, their parental squeamishness may be misplaced. Still, it is entirely up to them to decide whether they want to view it or not, but it got me thinking about my experience performing naked in front of a parent.
The first time I was completely naked in performance was in the Off-Broadway play Ronnie Larsen’s Peep Show back in 1998. I’ve still never done onscreen nudity beyond basic bikini top/short skirt-type scenarios, and I had previously been scantily clad for certain performances, but Peep Show was the full monty for the first time. (There have been subsequent occurrences, but this is about Peep Show.) Not only that, but it was the very first scene, and in a relatively small New York theater. I played Sherry, the “troubled” one of a group of gals working at a peep show in Times Square. (Young people and recent New York transplants, this used to be a thing. Trust me.)
Our Director and playwright Ronnie knew that people would be seeing a play called Peep Show, about the life at a peep show, expecting and probably counting down to the potential nudity to peep, so he wisely front-loaded it. It also served the story in that the three main characters were getting ready for their shifts, and he wanted to convey the ordinariness of these ladies becoming trashy showpieces in a matter of minutes.
So, when the lights went up and the music went on, we trotted out to the apron (edge) of the stage, in character and wearing boring street clothes, and completely stripped naked. Being the tallest, I was dead center stage, of course. We paused naked to give everyone a good look, as if to say “that’s out of the way, so we’re gonna do an actual play now,” then re-dressed for work and the dialogue began. We were so close that I could make eye contact with audience members if I so chose, which I often did because I like to push the envelope of discomfort when appropriate, which this was. It was intentionally in-your-face and the New York Times said we “mingle[d] raunch and research.” As an actor, the nudity was terrifying. But it felt necessary, and I had a great experience doing the play. Except for the night when my father came.
I was living on my own in NYC and feeling quite the adult at the time, which I was. My relationships with my parents, who divorced when I was seven, have always been difficult, but this was a time when my father was trying to be supportive, and so I got him a ticket to the play. That night, I got to work as usual, making the normal small talk at my dressing room station, feeling fine up until it hit me, way too late, that my father would be seeing me naked soon. I didn’t live with this man, he’s extremely conservative overall anyway, and holy shit how could I have let him come?!
I had warned him, of course! I had repeatedly told him that there was “explicit and objectionable content,” the least of which might have been the nudity, quite honestly. (In addition to the blatant full-frontal, I was hit by a man and also used intravenous drugs as Sherry.) He insisted it would be fine.
I can’t remember when I’ve had a more immature reaction to anything. At about fifteen minutes to curtain, I went and peeked from backstage and there he was, as I’m sure he had been before the house even opened, Mr. “Showing up on time is actually being late” that he was. I started shaking. I knew where he would be sitting even before I snuck a look, because I had gotten him the ticket, so he was given a primo “house seat.” So close to the stage. I wondered why I hadn’t requested that he get any old seat in the back—he wouldn’t have questioned how comps work!
I lost all sense of professionalism and refused to go on until my co-stars had to pry me from where I had attempted to hide in the wings. One of them shouted a pep talk at my face, and stopped just short of giving me a classic “snap out of it” slap across the face.
That whole performance was a blank. Everyone said it was fine, but I really don’t recall much of what happened after I walked out on stage, fixed my eyes on a spot on the ceiling, and unzipped my jacket.
My father never mentioned anything specific about anything he had seen that night. In fact, he never mentioned it after that night, and frankly I’m just glad we both survived the event.