Earlier this semester, a classmate shared a quote from E.E. Cummings about growing up that took my breath away.
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
At Cummings’ words, a lump forms in my throat. In two months I say goodbye to Ann Arbor, the place that gave me the courage to become who I am. I hardly recognize the girl who arrived in Ann Arbor four years ago. I came from a small Southern town in North Carolina where faith, butter and Conservative ideals were central to my way of life. I held myself to a high standard of “perfection” because of my recent win as the Distinguished Young Woman of America, (formerly known as America’s Junior Miss, whose past winners include Diane Sawyer and Deborah Norville). I didn’t curse, drink, break rules, stay out late or make a grade lower than an A. I was put together, well behaved and full of inspirational anecdotes and advice. I will always be proud of where I came from. And I will always be grateful to my hometown, my family and Distinguished Young Women for the dedication, empathy and morals they instilled in me. I realize that without coming from the background and community I come from, I may not have developed the same heart for service or strict dedication to my work. My faith, high standards and empathy are still very much central to who I am. But they are not all that I am.
Left: The moment I was named the Distinguished Young Woman of America.
Right: Signing autographs the day after I won.
To evolve, to truly let ourselves be changed by the things we have seen and the people whose paths we have crossed takes courage. It takes courage to question the things you have always held as indomitable truth. It takes courage to loosen your grip on the person you have always been to risk becoming the person you need to be. And it takes courage to free-fall into a new chapter that isn’t clearly defined. But it is worth the risk.
I clearly remember a moment in my Freshman Acting course with my professor, Gillian Eaton. We were working on a scene from Angels in America and I was playing a Valium-addicted, sex-starved, mentally deranged Mormon housewife. The play dealt with heavy themes of suffocating religious tenants, homosexuality, political corruption and mental illness. Throughout the semester, I struggled with the discomfort of these themes and with using language I had always refrained from. I remember at one moment during the struggle, Gillian, in her very kind and knowing way, said to me, “Christina, dear, I know you always want to be the light. But remember that without darkness, we do not need the light. Someone has to be the darkness so that the people watching can recognize that darkness in themselves and see the need for light.” Four years after receiving that advice, I realize that Gillian could not have been more spot-on. My responsibility as a performer, as a writer, as a person is to not be seduced into living in the comfort and warmth of the light alone.
One of the beauties of being an actress is that you are required to access and live in places that you’d never allowed yourself to go to otherwise. It has forced me to live in the tension of the grey areas and to take a walk through the darkness. In my work as a performer, I have become drawn to the characters who once made me feel uncomfortable--like the pill-popping housewife grappling with mental illness. I discover depth and truth in the darkness of those characters that I can bring to any character, even those seemingly full of light. My sophomore year, I played the Madame of a brothel and a young bullet boy fighting on the barricade in our production of Les Miserables. There was no room for sweeping sentimentality in these characters. One woman lived a polluted life of pimping and prostitution. The other character, a young child from the streets, died on the barricades fighting a hopeless war.
Performing as the Madame of a brothel in Les Miserables. I’m the red-headed prostitute left of center.
My junior year, I surprised the faculty and department (and myself!) when I was cast as the Washing Machine in our production of Caroline, or Change. The show followed a maid named Caroline, who stuggled against the injustice and lack of change in 1960s Louisiana. She worked for a wealthy white family, doing laundry in their basement for hours on end. The characters in the show were the inanimate objects that came to life as she worked in the basement for hours on end. The role I played, the Washing Machine, is typically played by a middle-aged, heavy-set African American woman. I am quite definitely none of those things. I had to trade in my quick and florid movement style for a deeply grounded and earthy quality of movement, discovering a new weight and fluidity born from witnessing decades of inequality and lack of change.
Performing the role of the Washing Machine in Caroline, or Change.
My senior year, I played Clara Johnson in The Light in the Piazza. As you could guess from the title of the show, this role was the perfect opportunity to embody the duality of light and dark I’d been working so hard to navigate. Clara is a lovely young woman who is normal and well behaved at first glance. Yet, because of a childhood accident, she never developed mentally past the age of 10. To find Clara’s character, I had to see past the obvious light in the show—the magic of Florence, Italy (where the show was set), Clara’s childlike innocence and playfulness and the theme of young love. I dug into the nuances of Clara’s character that I likely would have overlooked as a freshman—her fascination with death, animalistic desire for physical intimacy and the devastation of soul she goes through when she realizes that something is wrong with her that cannot be fixed.
As Clara Johnson in The Light in the Piazza earlier this year.
This journey I’ve been on is clearly reflected in how my college writing has evolved. My writing freshman year sounded a bit like something out of Reader’s Digest or a manual for “how to get a happier life in 21 days, guaranteed." It was completely saturated in light and, looking back, was one-dimensional and largely ineffective because of that.
Below is an excerpt is from the first college essay I wrote, which was supposed to share an unexpected lesson from our life. I wrote about learning to dance in the rain while backpacking the Appalachian Trail during a week of miserable weather.
“I stopped hoping the storm would pass and started dancing in the rain. I literally began to sing and skip along the trail as the rain pelted my upturned face. This stark change sparked a contagious joy within me. Suddenly, the skies weren’t so gray. When it continued to rain for the entire week, I chose to awake each morning with a resolution to rejoice that even rain couldn’t erode… It can be tempting to huddle under a tree, passively waiting for the storms in life, like a financial downturn or job difficulty, to pass. But why not throw off our misery and embrace the storms? I have found that I grow the most in courage and in faith in the stormiest times.”
I’m slightly blinded by the light in that brief excerpt. My writing was painfully safe, superfluous and predictable. But I try not to criticize my overly sentimental and sugary sweet writing too harshly. I did not know much of storms yet. The most difficult thing I had been through up to that point was being waitlisted for Michigan’s elite Musical Theatre Program and waiting six months (even after the commitment deadline in April!) to find out where I was going to college. Though it was an incredibly stressful and disheartening time, I count myself lucky that that was the biggest trial I faced in 18 years of life. I wrote about the trials more with imagination than with first-hand experience. I understood how to write about optimism and joy because my life was full of it.
But over the next few years, I met people and experienced things that made me look at the world differently. Things that had always been black and white for me were suddenly grey. I developed a new curiosity and began asking braver questions.
During my sophomore year, A.J. Marion, a friend and the star football player from my high school, was shot and killed by a police officer. It rocked my community back home to the core. In high school, A.J. was such the local celebrity athlete with playing offers from the top colleges. With a solidified future as a college athlete, teachers expected and demanded little of him in the classroom. But after a knee injury his senior year, A.J. lost all of his college offers. Having gone through high school viewing himself as an athlete rather than a student, A.J. barely graduated high school. He couldn’t get into college with his GPA alone. Instead, he took jobs at Burger King and AutoBell Car Wash. The night he died, he was being pursued by police for an attempted robbery, something I could never imagine the respectful, charismatic and huge-hearted guy I knew doing.
When he died, I began asking questions about how A.J. got to that point. He fell through the cracks of our educational system. Why? I asked these questions in a paper called “Education and the Underdog”, written for an upper-level writing course, Equity and Excellence: The Politics of Education. I analyzed the caste-like system of education in America and faced head-on the cycle of poverty and crime that our education system often does little to break for poor, minority students. Yet, I never reached any concrete answers or solutions.
For me, this was a big step. It was the first time my writing asked questions that didn’t have a clear answer, or even an answer at all. I realized that my writing didn’t have to be tied up in a neat little bow at the end to be valuable. In fact, I felt that this piece, which explored the darkness of how our school system failed one of the students who needed it most and offered no sentimental conclusion, was the most evocative and moving thing I had written so far.
As I allowed my interests to vastly diversify over the next few years, my writing did as well. I worked with producers from 48 Hours over a summer internship, wrote an essay about the topless laws in my hometown, analyzed Shakespeare, Oscar Hammerstein II and Arthur Miller and filled journals with imperfect, freeform thoughts on the characters and techniques I was working on in classes and productions. I allowed myself to write without limitations or the expectation of coming to a happy ending. In an acting course this semester, I was assigned the same character and from Angels in America that I hated so much my freshman year. As part of the course, I had to write an extensive book and character analysis. One question required me to write about how the themes of the work resonated with me at this particular point in my life. I wrote about how the themes that had terrified and confused me as a freshman now hit me in a completely different way. I shared how I have struggled with the issue of gay rights over my time here and how now, I believe something entirely different than I did as a freshman. My character analysis became something of a one-sided therapy session, an outpouring of my fears, shifting beliefs and unanswered questions. My teacher wrote back to me, thanking me for trusting her enough to share with such vulnerability and honesty. That vulnerability and honest questioning has replaced my contrived happy endings in writing. And I’m proud of that.
This new way of thinking and writing was obvious in one of my most recent pieces, a multimedia photo-journal essay that was published on UMS Lobby (University Musical Society). Last summer, I was selected as one of UMS’s 21st Century Artist Interns to work with one of the incredible groups UMS brings in to perform on campus each year. I was chosen to work with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán; the world’s premiere Mariachi group. I spent the summer traveling the country with the group and their U.S. producers, Muñoz Public Relations. I came in with little knowledge of Mariachi music, broken Spanish and no idea what would be required of me. My essay, written at the culmination of my internship, was supposed to use multi-media and engage audience members in my summer immersion. I had no prompt or rules to follow and no clear expectations of what I would produce, something that would have stressed me out as a freshman. But for the person I had become, it was a chance to write without restriction, something I’ve gotten a lot better at.
In the essay, I talked about the beauty and celebration of the experience:
“I remember this summer as an explosion of color, flavor, and sound. There is nothing black-and-white about the world of Mariachi Music and the Mexicano community that embraces it as lifeblood. The crowded streets of the San Antonio Market Square are flooded with vibrant fabrics and rich fragrances drifting from street food stands selling elotes (roasted corn), mangonadas (a Mexican fruit drink), and fresh fruit with lime and chili powder. Rainbows of dazzling sequins and threads decorate the intricate and costly trajes and sombreros of the Mariachi performers. Even sunlight seems more alive as it sparkles through the stained glass windows of the nearby ancient Espada Mission. Everything is full of rhythm and life and everything is done to the fullest…whether that’s mourning heartache, celebrating with tequila, or extending hospitality.”
In San Antonio’s Market Square during my internship.
But I also talk about the tougher moments of the internship. I discuss the self-reproach and uncertainty I felt when I gave a student a critique on their song interpretation and an older couple came up to me afterwards and told me “What you told her was wrong. You do not understand us yet.” I talk about the troubling lack of educational impetus within the extraordinarily talented community of Mariachi musicians and the racism that still pervades the communities they live in. And I talk about a particularly tough conversation I had one evening with my boss’s father, Mr. Muñoz.
Mr. Muñoz faced insurmountable odds growing up in Texas as a Mexicano. He lived in a little town so deeply segregated that the whites and the Mexicans literally lived on separate sides of railroad tracks. He went to a school called “the Mexican School” that had all Spanish-speaking students and not a single Spanish-speaking teacher. One story especially stuck with me. Fifty years ago, he, his brother and their two families were on a lengthy road trip trying to find a hotel to stay for the night. They were turned away at four hotels because of the color of their skin, told that there were “no vacancies” when that obviously wasn’t the case. The two heads of the families were forced to beg for a place to sleep. Mr. Muñoz told me, “My brother and I were standing there…we had to do that in front of our families?”…“You see, those are just minor things that our people have gone through.”
I didn’t shy away from the injustices of the past I could do nothing to fix. I didn’t hide from the discomfort of the fact that, for almost the entire summer, I was the only white person most places I went, or from the fact that I was surrounded by Mexican Americans when Donald Trump made his first comments about building a wall to keep out the rapists. Instead, I leaned into that tension. I think that it was because I chose to lean in that this new community trusted me enough to let me in on stories like those of Mr. Muñoz.
Talking with Mr. Muñoz.
For my final project for my Sweetland Minor in Writing, I decided to document an outreach program I founded at University of Michigan. Two years ago, I began a program at Mott Children’s Hospital on campus. On a weekly basis, I take Musical Theatre students to perform Disney music for and with patients and their families. The way music ignites joy and infectious laughter in the patients is nothing short of magic. Yet, for a project about happy Disney songs and laughing children, I address a surprising amount of darkness. I delve into the reality behind the smiling patients. Some of these children have spent years of their lives, or even their entire lives, in a hospital, no doubt feeling trapped like prisoners. These children face endless poking and prodding, painful procedures, scary prognoses and daily uncertainty. Many are quite literally facing death on a daily basis, a very tangible and overwhelming darkness. The Disney songs we share with these patients would not have so astounding an impact if it were not taking place in the midst of such dark circumstances. Because I understand the reality the children are facing, I can understand why a mother weeps quietly while she watches her daughter sing the lyrics “Up where the walk, up where they run, up where they stay all day in the sun…Wandering free. Wish I could be part of that world.” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I know that there is nothing I can do to make it all better for these children, nothing I can do to “fix” them. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to meet them where they are, engage and share a mutual love for music and laughter.
Singing with a patient at Mott Children’s Hospital.
In one month, I graduate from University of Michigan. In May, I move to New York City to showcase with my senior class for the city’s top casting directors and agents. I have no idea what four months from now looks like. One moment I am filled with excitement looking for apartments in New York and the next I’m crying in the middle of State Street over how beautiful the Ann Arbor sunset looks framed behind the Michigan Theater sign. I’m a mess of uncertainty, exhilaration and anxiety. And that’s ok. While I have no idea what this next chapter holds, I know after my time here that that place of ambiguity and insecurity is where the most worthwhile experiences happen. So while I am nervous, I am not afraid. I am too busy becoming who I really am.