Inside Arts, a magazine published by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters
The curtains open, the black light tubes flicker on. I am waiting in the wings of an old vaudeville house in Maryland, not far, by touring standards, from the place where the constitution of the United States was signed. Juggling, the art form which entered my life as a solitary hobby in elementary school, has become my hymn to the pursuit of happiness. Yet I never would have dreamed, when I juggled on stage for the first time in my eighth grade talent show, how far this force would propelme across continents and into other lives.
I’ve been juggling with Lazer Vaudeville for almost seven years in theatres, opera houses, colleges and performing arts centers across the country. Now, whenever I put on the mask and gloves which enable us to disappear and become black light puppeteers, my mind wanders back to Arabian summer nights, to a time that hovers in my memory like a desert mirage betokening mystery, excitement, fear, and frustration.
As I disappear into the blackness and hear the children’s squeals of laughter and delight, I am reminded that in Saudi Arabia women wear black from head to ankle in public; people tell each other apart by their shoes (or Roller Blades). Adult female faces are completely covered by double-layered veils. And last summer, for six weeks, one of these faces was mine.
As the only woman in Lazer Vaudeville’s three-person cast, I tried to stay optimistic as we prepared for our first trip to the Middle East. Our destination: the city of Abha, capitol of Saudi Arabia’s southwestern province of Asir, where we have been contracted for a six-week run. As a dutiful thirty- something, I promised my mother that I would not do anything revolutionary, i.e. noticeable, while in the Kingdom I filled out “Catholic” in answer to the religion question on my immigration form just as other Jewish performers had advised. Soon I was flying into Jeddah and then on to the New Abha Resort’s Luna Park with fellow-jugglers Carter Brown and Jeffrey Daymont.
We had been engaged through SYAHYA, the National Council for Tourism, over a year ago. The kingdom plans to begin granting tourist visas in the next year or two, so officials are eager to bring some positive foreign influences to the area. The U. S. State Department told us we would be the only Americans to perform for Saudi citizens in public, as opposed to entertaining within the confines of military, air-force or oil compounds, places where locals are not admitted.
We had been warned about the strict Muslim customs/laws in the Kingdom. For starters, men wear long white gowns with headscarves and can be arrested for wearing shorts. Women are not permitted to drive; in a Rosa Parks-style demonstration a few years ago, 50 women drove cars through the streets of Jeddah to challenge this law. In a classic gesture, the law responded by arresting their husbands. Aside from the Saudi management, the actual work force is made up of Egyptians, Philippines, Moroccans, Syrians, Sudanese and Indonesians, who told us they had been warned not to attempt to date Saudi women on pain of death.
After a year of emailed messages from our contacts assuring us that I would not need a veil or any special attire to perform in the show, I felt fairly secure about accepting the contract. Still, I brought along a black dress and headscarf and, after five minutes in the Jeddah airport, couldn’t wait to put them on. As I looked around at the strictly chaperoned children, the anxious, submissive women, and the dominant yet repressed men, I wondered whether I would really be allowed to perform after all, and, if so, how I would face the task.
Entering Luna Park, I felt some encouragement from the sight of here. Imagine a miniature Disneyland, one with separate lines for men and women leading to the same ride. Later I found that, since women are not allowed to enter or leave the park without their husbands, I often had to point to our poster in order to enter or exit the park. My forebodings proved fairly accurate: when we scoped out our venue, the “Family Stage,” with some of the staff it seemed that the management had no intention of letting me perform, with or without a veil. huge color posters with pictures of…us! Yet that woman on the wall juggling without her face and head covered seems recklessly out of place
“Only men can perform for families,” they insisted, “women can perform for women only (in private) and men and women cannot perform together—any exception would put our establishment at risk.”
Many meetings later, after our equipment was discovered locked in a closet at the Jeddah airport, it was confirmed in front of the rest of the staff that I would not be performing in the show. Then I was taken aside by the top brass and told that I could in fact perform as long as nobody could see me. Since this was TOP SECRET, I would have to impersonate a man (i.e. wear slacks, a T- shirt, and a baseball cap) so as to deceive the rest of the staff, who would feel religiously and culturally violated if they knew a woman was taking part.
Oddly enough, when we put this gender plan into effect, the staff kept popping back stage. “Oh, Cindy, are you performing? Good for you,” they would call out, giving me the thumbs up.
When I found out women could not be admitted to the gym or pool, I took to jogging in the hills above the resort for exercise. For this I wore silky sweat pants from the basket souk and a baseball cap instead of a veil. Though anonymous in the show, I soon became a tourist attraction for the locals. The fathers would wave me inside, where I would be served mint tea and invited to clown it up for the kids. The parents wanted me to teach the girls in particular headstands, jump rope, or any sort of American-circus exercise they might have seen on T. V. (Tom & Jerry ran incessantly). Up in the mountains, I could hear the 6-times-daily chant broadcast from loudspeakers mounted on the Mosques. I thought it would be irritating, but I grew to treasure the spiritual moments it yielded.
Back at the Palace Hotel, it was another world entirely. We were treated to sumptuous buffets created by a British chef who used to work for the Harrods family and the Saudi royals in London. Glass elevators lifted us to the top of the pyramid-shaped hotel. As we gazed down at robed figures gliding across Italian marble floors, I felt like a passenger on the Titanic, a stranger calmly lingering in a strangely surviving land.
The staff treated us with bemused curiosity, eagerly following the vaudevillian script of our little Saudi soap opera. I took advantage of the “Ladies Only” Internet café to blow off steam. Perhaps sensing that I would need an outlet, management informed me that I had been invited to perform at Ladies Night, a 5-hour weekly program held downtown at the 3000-seat Abha Cultural Center. Actually, this was a much better venue than the roofless, carpet-covered, concrete stage the trio was stuck with. Even though I loved the opportunity to perform 30-minute solo act to music, I sorely missed our ensemble work.
At Ladies’ Night I finally I saw women relax a bit and let down their guard—-and their hair, taking off their veils and dancing in the aisle to the beat of an all-woman’s percussion ensemble. At one point I was escorted into the audience to meet the presiding Princess (just about every institution or activity in the kingdom is underwritten by her husband, Prince Kahlid, brother to the King).
During our last week in the Kingdom, Lazer Vaudeville received an invitation for a command performance at the Abha Palace. The occasion was Princess Loulou’s 6th birthday party (her grandmother was the Princess at Ladies’ Night). Inside the palace walls, I was encouraged to remove my headgear and juggle with the troupe. After this oasis of vaudeville artistry, I returned to my role as The Invisible Woman of Luna Park, running sound and lights, handing the guys their props, and straining to catch a glimpse of the audience.
We returned to America with an adventurer’s tale worthy of Scheherazade. Now, on these New England autumn nights of touring and juggling, our crisp catches and passionate passes seem to continue from Altoona to Hyattsville in an uninterrupted flow. But as I step onstage here in Maryland, I can’t help thinking of those Arabian nights a world away. I will remember the women’s eyes—theirs and mine—peering through dark curtains, waiting to speak.
–Cindy Marvell, January 2001