by playwright, Katherine James
My sister, Laura Ellen James, lived and died on February 5, 1955.
She would have been 60 years old this year.
For a year I thought to myself, “I would love to honor her birthday in some way in 2015 – give her some kind of birthday bash. After all, I would have given her a big party if she and I had spent those 60 years together.
Of course I told no one.
There was really no one to tell. My mother, who is 89 years young, was in a coma that sad day in 1955. She and Laura Ellen were both victims of pre-eclampsia. She survived. My father, who was the only person other than me (I was turning 3 in April) conscious of the events of that terrible time had died in 2013. The day she was born and died he had named her “Laura Ellen” after the character “Laura Ellen James” in Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe . The “James” he had already given her by virtue of being her father.
Not only was I conscious, I remember so many of the events of that life-changing time for all of us. My mother claims I have the best and longest memory of any human being she has every known. So does my husband. My children. One of my granddaughters has managed to inherit it. It is a gift and a curse, the inability to forget.
For six decades I thought of her, spoke to her, dreamt of her and visited her grave in the baby section of Fairview Cemetary.
Then there came a period of time when I thought that she was my artistic inspiration.
Artistic inspiration. That instinct that tells you what words to write on the page as a playwright when you are stuck. Or what the character you are playing might do in that moment when you are acting. Or how to help the actors help you discover what the play you are directing is really all about.
It got really dicey for that period of time.
I thought I couldn’t do anything without her input.
At this point I happened to be doing some bodywork with someone who was also a very sensitive psychic. She told me, “Someone keeps trying to interfere with how you are expressing yourself as an artist. Tell her you are sorry she isn’t alive, but that you are and you have a right to express what you are meant to express.” “But it’s my sister,” I said. “So what?” she replied. “The world needs to know what you have to say. It’s sad and frustrating to be dead with so much left unsaid…but… that’s what happened to her. Not you.”
Gently I removed myself from Laura Ellen as anything but my dear sister who I would miss forever. I stopped confusing her as a source of artistic inspiration. And, of course, my work soared.
But I kept that relationship – the dead sister as muse relationship – in the back of my mind. I felt that somehow, some day, that relationship would be called on as the subject of a play.
When Tiffany announced the subject of the 2015 Little Black Ink National Female Playwrights Festival was “Outside The Lines” I knew that time had come. I tweaked the truth just enough – making The Artist a painter, and The Muse a twin sister rather than a younger sister. The first draft of MUSE ME flowed from my heart and my fingers. At the same time, a director from my home town asked if he could direct my play, THE OLD SALT (a finalist in 2014’s Little Black Dress Ink National Female Playwrights Festival), for a 10 minute play festival in the theater where I grew up. When was it? The festival would coincide with Laura Ellen’s 60th birthday.
I booked airline tickets for my mother and me immediately. I knew I was being given the gift for which I had asked.
February 5, 6, 7 and 8 of 2015 were amazing days for me. The glorious production of THE OLD SALT attended by so many from my past. Visiting friends and relatives. Going to see my sister and my father in the cemetery. Best of all was a special luncheon with a small number of women who were close to my mother and me, three of whom were associated with my home theater. I asked those theater friends to read MUSE ME at the luncheon. One read the stage directions, one read The Artist, and the third The Muse. The actress who read “The Muse” I chose especially not only because of her ability, but because she is the one who my mother trusts to take care of my sister’s and father’s graves. “But I feel like I know her!” she said before the reading. “I talk to her all the time!” “I know,” I said. “And that is why you get to play her.”
The reading was glorious and sacred. We all understood that we were there for Laura Ellen’s final birthday gift of the weekend. It is a moment I will keep in my heart until the day I die.
I look forward with joy and anticipation to sharing MUSE ME with the other semi-finalists this year on May 16th. This is a special one for me, and it is only right that it was inspired by one of the most extraordinary of theatre artists in my life – Tiffany Antone. Thank you, Tiffany, for choosing a festival theme that allowed me to find expression in this play which is so important to me as an artist and as a sister.