by: Ricardo Felix Rodriguez
An excerpt from a new publication of short stories by Ricardo Felix Rodriguez, “The Surreal Adventures of Dr. Mingus”….
Fiction and reality interact in such a narrow space that it is not always possible to distinguish one from another. Our identity depends on our personal history and the roles we play in society. Theatre works with fiction but reality always waits beyond proscenium. Normal? Who amongst us can call himself normal? The ones who adapt faster following the rules? There are certain characters that live on the edge just to put to the test the limits of our beliefs.
You don’t need to know my name. I am going to try to tell this story as I remember it. Although I am conscious that memory can deceive us, the risk to describe facts from a subjective point of view is worth understanding this incident. I was a journalist at the time and Jesse was the name of our little town’s new “idol.” He studied drama in the capital. He was an obsessive reader since early childhood. He liked to play sports, chess, and used to drink red wine occasionally. He was more or less a hardy man, not too tall with curly brown hair and bright eyes.
He started to become recognized thanks to low budget theatre productions. His performances were OK and always warmly received by the audiences. Personally, I didn’t like theatre. Not only that but also I hated people from the stage; actors, directors, writers, producers, etcetera. All of those guys involved in show business were too much for me. Everything about them was false. They were all about ego, vanity and self-esteem: people who weren’t real, imitating words and actions of real people.
The worst of them were the directors; they often had a “fragmented” perception of reality. Narcissists who played the role of “demigods” in a life they were not even able to direct onstage. There could have been exceptions but most of the time they were like Ravels’ Bolero repeated obsessively. An empty shell ostensibly containing a little beauty.
Despite my “negative” ideas about theatre, I went down to the city of New York to make an interview with Jesse. I worked for a local newspaper. In one of last week’s notes, some reporter talked about Jesse’s third visit to the psychiatric hospital.
It appears the young artist suffered from bipolar disorder that had plagued him since he was eighteen years old, an age in which these symptoms manifested themselves as evidence of his mental disease.
“The Holy Spirit” was the name of this hospital in which Jesse was now admitted. The doctor in charge of him had accepted our visit to do an interview with his most popular patient. He promised an hour between Jesse and me.
“Local actor says he is Jesus our savior,” said the note. Among other things, they said he had established a clinic to try to give help to the poor and ill people.
Some of the natives in his hometown said Jesse was receiving messages from another galaxy. But it was not necessarily God to them, it was another kind of being living in a remote universe. When I arrived in New York, I went out to the drama school. The director gave me a warm welcome.
Director: Jesse has a lot of potential as an actor. He is a strong guy. We are not really concerned about his disease. I mean, in the sense that we know sooner or later he will recover, and that it is not a handicap that really interferes with his acting career or his status as a student of our institution.
Me: Which method is taught at your school?
Director: We work on the character’s construction, kind of like the Stanislavski method.
Me: What’s your version about what happened?
Director: Well, Jesse, he was playing Jesus in “Jesus Trial.”
Me: You mean this play had something to do with his mental disease?
Director: Well, this wouldn’t be the first time an actor gets stuck in a character.
Me: Gets stuck?
Director: Stanislavski, you know?
Me: I don’t, that’s why I am asking.
Director: As an actor you work with some sort of emotional memory.
Me: Which consists of?
Director: It requires actors to set off the emotions of their characters internally.
Me: An internal process.
Director: A very deep internal process. If you are not prepared psychologically you could get stuck in a character’s’ identity.
Me: Nullifying your own?
Director: Nullifying, fusing or adopting a new one.
Me: In this case what kind of Jesus was he playing?
Director: A messiah facing power, spirituality, uncertainty… Pontius Pilate “trying to save him” despite his anti-Semitism.
Me: If he thinks he is Jesus of Nazareth, is there a way you can reverse this process and convince him to start being himself again?
Director: Well, that’s what the experts are working on right now, out there in the loony bin. We were affected by Jesse’s crisis. He renounced coming to school because his time of helping people wasn’t enough. We are unable to fight against his disease in that sense. I hope the doctors can help him. Well, like I was saying, Jesse deeply immersed himself in a Stanislavski process and his physical appearance and personality started to change radically in front of our eyes. We just couldn’t stop him. He became a total stranger to everyone. He started praying alone in the desert and gave long sermons about ego and love to his neighbors. In a way I am very proud he studied here. I mean, he is in the mental hospital and everything but I know he will recover. He definitely will come back and perform another character.
I finished up the interview earlier than I had expected. I was bored and hungry, so I decided to thank the director and then have a quick breakfast. Then maybe I could see Maggie, Jesse’s ex-girlfriend. Besides, this director was starting to piss me off for talking like a wise guy.
Maggie lived in a little apartment downtown. She agreed to give the interview on the condition that we let her choose the questions. She was a beautiful woman, not only in her appearance, but on the inside. She had a great smile and a nice pair of eyes that shone with every gesture she made.
Maggie: Where shall I start?
Me: You tell me.
Maggie: We got along pretty good since the beginning but…
Maggie: But I feel as if we left something opened…he turned onto another person.
Me: What was he like before?
Maggie: A good guy, kind and educated you know?
Me: Why did you guys break up?
Maggie: He spent all day in school and I spent all day at my job. We couldn’t find time for us.
Me: What’s your occupation?
I decided to ask her even though I knew the answer for that one.
Maggie: I am a dancer at a strip club. At least I have been for a couple of years, to finance my studies at the university.
Me: Which major do you study?
Me: So did you guys meet at your work?
Maggie: We met at an acting workshop. Theatre is also one of my passions. I got the impression he was just the loneliest person in the world, and I decided to keep him company.
Me: Did you guys get pretty close?
Maggie: Not at the beginning, but later, we did. He was kind of introverted, but imaginative and affectionate at the same time; like a little kid. That’s what I liked about him. He was spontaneous and not a bad lover…
Me: Did he turn water into wine or multiply bread or fish?
Maggie: That’s silly…I do remember him healing through words.
Maggie: Words. You know… he knew how to listen.
Me: Did you see him curing any people?
Maggie: I saw people looking for him, yes.
Me: Looking for Jesus?
Maggie: To catch a piece of faith? I remember one day a group of people with physical disabilities filled the meeting hall. They came from all directions: east, south and northwest… dressed in old clothes. I remember their faces like a picture in my mind. Their countenances looked hard, rough and pale. The history of the working class could be read between their wrinkled lines. Their soft steps echoed in the ears of the walls like an elephant stampede. I could hear the bones crunching like canes holding the weight of the world. I remember the face of one of them in particular, his black moustache was completely covered in gray. His sad look reflected that he had lost faith in man and prophets. He didn’t have the chance to receive a basic education yet his voice had more truth than a regular politician. He had harvested land since he could remember. That had always been enough to feed his family and to consider himself happy, until a couple of days back when a government officer dressed in a suit demanded that he modernize his crop techniques in order to be able to compete with the big industry. Now his twisted smile seemed to leave a sense of hopelessness. They gathered in silence looking around the yellow hall. A little sunlight filtered through the curtains. They had no strength at all, that’s why they remained seated supporting their chins with their walking sticks. Suddenly a note was heard in the back of the hall, a band was playing a contagious rhythm. Jesse was playing guitar with a couple of volunteers, sweet music coming into the ears of everybody. The crowd danced ignoring their pains and physical limitations. As some of them laughed others threw away their crutches and wheelchairs. A lame man danced tap on the piano using an umbrella to hold his weight and hit the keys. The soft murmur of trumpets melted the audience in a gentle stillness. The miracle was real and just needed a little music to emerge.
Me: It is hard to believe an actor goes out to play a character like this in the real life.
Maggie: We live amongst the height of reason, but somehow reason deceives us.
Me: Humankind is about trying to reconstruct their gods.
Maggie: It is about being able to create magical moments.
Me: It is hard to complete the puzzle.
Maggie: You need to see it for yourself.
Me: You know where I can find his parents?
Maggie: I actually do.
The interview ended there. A couple of hours later I was waiting in front of the door of Jesse’s family house. Both of his parents seemed to be nice and pretty ordinary to me.
Me: Thanks for letting me into your house.
Mother: Please feel free to ask anything.
Me: What can you tell me about your son?
Mother: What do you want to know about him?
Me: Just give me a whole description.
Mother: Well…he is a good son, a good artist too.
Me: When did he decide to become an actor?
Mother: He enjoyed making people laugh since he was a little kid. He used to manipulate sheets and blankets simulating a scenario or performing an improvised story for us. His imagination was overflowing; there were times when we worried. Like this character he invented: the bearded old man, remember?
Father: How could I forget? The whole neighborhood started looking for Jesse’s imaginary friend.
Mother: He convinced the other kids about the existence of this character. We tried to ignore him in the beginning but suddenly our neighbors were organizing surveillance brigades in the zone.
Father: He was discovering his skills as a storyteller. We never mentioned that he also studied books of magic and illusionism.
Me: That’s sounds quite interesting. Did you see him performing “Jesus Trial?”
Mother: He reminded me of that guy…Welles…I don’t remember his name. We support him all the way.
Father: Orson…we certainly do.
Mother: He has studied and followed theatre techniques since he was a little kid.
Father: Sometimes I think he is probably faking this so called mental disease to tell you the truth. If Jesus descends upon the Earth he might end up in a psychiatric hospital.
Me: Have you noticed any changes in him?
Mother: Yes, every time he plays a different role at the theatre. And we are proud.
Me: Has he written anything about his childhood?
Mother: Mmm…I remember a little story about the night a member of our family died. It started out by talking about insects:
I have always associated death with a large conglomeration of cockroaches. One night an uncle of mine died, I was just a kid…and my mother told me she felt a cold sweat on her back…
She saw what seemed to be the silhouette of a man rounding her bed, and decided to wake up my father. They turned on the lights and dozens of insects were paralyzed at the center of the bedroom…they killed every single one of them and none of them resisted or tried to escape from their destiny. It was my uncle’s ghost I think…
Mother: Of course the tale goes a little bit different but that’s the main idea.
Me: Have you considered that Jesse hasn’t surpassed the oedipal relationship?
Father: We are running out of time now.
Mother: Yes we have to go to church mister.
Father: You must forgive us.
Mother: But thanks for the interview.
Father: Come back to visit us some day, so you can meet our son!
I realized my questions were starting to make them nervous so I thanked them for the interview and set off for the mental institution to which our actor had been admitted.
I ate some sushi before I got into the place. I stood in the waiting room for two or three minutes before a guy named Mingus received me at his office.
The eccentric doctor asked me a number of questions and gave me recommendations before I saw his patient, not because he could be dangerous in any way, but because there was a procedure I had to follow. Besides, it seemed like Jesse was under medication and it might be harder to communicate with him.
When I arrived at the main yard of the hospital, a nurse gave me a nice welcome and guided me through the halls of the mental institution.
I found Jesse seated at a little picnic table under an orange tree. He was surrounded by a group of nurses. He had no hair at all; no hair and no visible expressions. He had the total attention of five or six nurses. They seemed paralyzed by his narrative skills and his enigmatic personality. One of the nurses interrupted his monologue about the importance of meditation and energy centers and introduced me to him.
Nurse: This man came to interview you Jesse.
Jesse: That’s right, the interview. I had forgotten.
He looked at me smiling with his big eyes and his yellow teeth. He apologized to the crew whispering words in their ears. The nurses smiled like he was some kind of famous star. I introduced myself formally. I asked him to let me record the whole session. He agreed and I started asking questions:
Me: Can you give me your complete name please?
Jesse: Let’s focus on the key facts.
Me: Where shall I start then?
Jesse: I don’t have a clue but certainly not with our names.
Me: Our names define who we are.
Jesse: One could also say they try to define who we are.
Me: Who are you?
Jesse: I am a human being.
Me: What kind of human being?
Jesse: One determined by circumstances.
Me: What do you mean?
Jesse: I play a role in life as much as you and the others.
Me: What’s your role in life?
Jesse: I don’t have a defined role. I try to have an impact on the world I live in.
Me: Why don’t you have a defined role?
Jesse: I was born under particular circumstances…quite a lot of expectations.
Me: Could you be more specific?
Jesse: It is not important at all.
Me: Let our readers decide what’s important.
Jesse: We are always playing a role in family, school, life…right now.
Me: What kind of roles are we playing right now?
Jesse: You are the enthusiastic journalist and I am supposed to be the wacko.
Me: Or visionary?
Jesse: Both maybe.
Me: Have you discovered yourself trying to play that role?
Jesse: I try to correspond in the terms of the behavior of that role.
Me: Is that why you studied the arts?
Jesse: Probably. In theatre you live a different role depending on the character.
Me: It is impossible to discard our own identity.
Jesse: Countries also play roles.
Me: In politics you mean?
Jesse: The mass media builds an identity which we assimilate…it is not even a rational process.
Me: You mean good and evil.
Jesse: I mean identities, good and evil, are just ornaments for politics and religions.
Me: Do you believe in Jesus?
Jesse: I’ve always been a man of faith.
Me: But are you aware of your mental disease?
Jesse: Which mental disease?
Me: Well, take a look around, we’re inside a mental hospital.
Jesse: That doesn’t make me insane automatically.
Me: Well, let me put it this way. Are you aware of your identity problem?
Jesse: I know who I am.
Me: Who you are?
Jesse: I told you, a man determined by circumstances.
Me: And what’s that supposed to mean exactly? Are you a god?
Jesse: Jesus’s flame burns within me.
Me: What do you mean?
Jesse: I could affirm “I am god” and not necessarily be a lunatic.
Me: Sounds like nonsense to me.
Jesse: God is inside me as much as he is inside you.
Me: But I don’t go around trying to heal people or perform acts of illusion.
Jesse: Take a look at that orange tree, what can you tell me?
Me: Looks dry, barely any leaves.
Me: Wait a minute! It looks like there are some oranges hanging from its branches!
Jesse: You got it.
Me: That’s awesome!
Jesse: We try desperately to look for answers through reason but we forget about our essence.
Me: And what’s our essence?
Jesse: We are radiant beings closer to the magic of faith than from the coldness of reason…
We couldn’t finish talking because a couple of the nurses arrived to take him away to his physical therapy session. He winked his left eye while he was leaving. I stood there organizing my notes when I saw the weirdest thing in my entire life: the oranges from the tree had become red flowers, or was it just that I had not observed this well at first? The truth is that I never published the interview. I was left with an empty feeling. The last thing I heard about Jesse was that he was touring the country with a big circus show. No doubt he was doing a good job entertaining people, and I wondered if could we blame Stanislavski for all of this?