My Name Is Moonbeam McSwine
An Essay by Tiffany Midge
My Name Is Moonbeam McSwine
the unseen hand
“You’re all standing around like mannequins! If Sam Shepard were here right now he’d shit his fucking pants!”
If John Waters needed to cast an understudy for Divine, he’d choose Irina-the-Hun Kaas, student-director of Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand, performed by the Footlights Ensemble at Bellevue Community College.
“B A N G!” Irina simulated the shooting of a pistol. “You’re mad, see. Really, really mad, okay?! Here, give me your gun.” Irina took up Trevor’s pistol, while the rest of us tried to keep from laughing. “Now, it’s like this: Bang, bang, bang!” Irina strutted across the stage in her rhinestone-studded heels and leopard-print see-through blouse. “Okay, watch me, shoot him like this, BANG…” Gordon murmured, “Chitty, Chitty,” under his breath and right on cue Irina finished…“BANG, BANG!” It was hilarious. “Oh shit!” Irina set the pistol down in a panic. “Is this thing loaded?”
Irina drove a baby blue Firebird convertible, and when she waved goodbye in the parking lot she looked like she was cruising down Hollywood Boulevard in a parade, a movie starlet, her blonde ringlets stock still from hairspray abuse.
She started a fling with Jerry, the theater’s distinguished alcoholic windbag in residence. Their affair had been unofficially announced during a cast party when the two of them — clearly not sticklers for discretion, or ones to put on airs — niched themselves away in a bedroom where their exertions were well heard by all. And if anyone had any doubts that the two were an item, those were swiftly put to rest when Jerry sauntered out to the party sans shirt, unbuckled pants, lit up a cigarette and proceeded to show off the long, bloody scratches running down his back.
Two weeks later, Irina flew into a panic and dragged everyone into her drama: Jerry got her pregnant. Her plight was broadcast like an Orange Alert. We all pooled our money so she could get an abortion but she miscarried and spent all our money on drugs. Eventually Irina and Jerry were banished from the theater department after getting caught shooting up in the green room.
I pined for the role of Moonbeam McSwine, I wanted sleeping out with hogs to be MY line. I wanted the fellers to squire me only in fine weather. I wanted to be Moonbeam almost as much as I wanted to play the crazy cat girl Janice Vickery, from The Effect of the Gamma Rays on the Man and the Moon Marigolds. Janice, who boiled the skin off a cat she supposedly got from the animal shelter, and had to scrape the gristle off the joints with a knife. Janice Vickery, who wryly said “you have no idea how difficult it is to get right down to the bones.” I liked to imagine Janice Vickery not as the sociopath everyone made her out to be, but as a misunderstood genius! A scientist! I wanted to play Janice Vickery as much as I wanted to play Petra from A Little Night Music. Petra, portrayed as the housemaid who liked to have a good time, in that good way, that fun way, her song about marrying the miller’s son, or maybe the business man, or maybe not anyone, maybe Petra would rather have “a wink and a wiggle and a giggle in the grass, a girl has to celebrate what passes by, there are mouths to be kissed,” you know. But there was no Moonbeam for me, because at fifteen, with a father who was playing the role of Earthquake McGoon, the village lech, who chased after Daisy Mae, pawed at her like cat toy, and literally licked her, the director wasn’t willing to let me slop the hogs. I was much too innocent. So I became instead just another Dogpatcher. Certainly not Stupifying Jones! But the dogpatcher who gets fat-shamed by Mamie: “We wants to broaden our horizons!” I squawked with my Indian corn hillbilly grin. And Mamie replied, “Yer horizons are broad enough already!”
Our regular Towne Theater crowd were instructed to dress up as pagans and peasants for the Saturday night May Day Celebration. I wore my old Natalia costume from one of my Chekhov one-acts and a pink pair of ballet slippers. My father dressed as a farmer, wearing his red satin Earthquake McGoon pants with the big orange patches on the butt and somehow he managed to herd his ornery old ram into the back of his Volvo hatchback.
“Somebody get that ram a drink!”
I never fully appreciated the kind of social caché that livestock can bring to a hosted affair until that night, and I was reminded of it when years later my best friend Evie brought a Bay City Roller lookalike and his eighteen pound boa constrictor to my house party, a literary soiree, held in honor of the first real poet I ever kissed. Really, a good hostess will never underestimate the festive potential of live reptiles, or farm animals, as my father had proved. What wine pairs with reptiles? You might ask. I found box wine to be the perfect complement.
bye bye birdie
Conrad Birdie was going into the army and I was part of a raucous chorus of idol-worshipping teenagers replete in poodle skirts and saddle shoes. I screamed so loudly and so often during the three-month run that I developed a permanent voice scorch. During the run I acquired a boyfriend, a troubled but sweet seventeen-year-old whose Christian-conservative parents had exiled him to a halfway house with other wayward boys who also had behavioral and drug and alcohol problems. The lost boys, I call them. Boys who break into houses. Boys who rob gas stations and sell drugs. Boys who became mythic in my recollection, because only in literature and films can lost boys ever hope for redemption. But I never stopped trying. I ended up losing this lost boy to a drowning accident. The last time I saw him alive, he gave me a gift — an hourglass.
one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
My father co-opted one of my mother’s old wigs to play Chief Bromden, the mute Indian, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for a local theater production. Although he had plenty of cultural insider awareness, he played mostly to stereotype, and his Bromden was stiff as a cigar store Indian. I like to think he tried to bring some relevancy to the role, having been married to a Native woman, my mother, for all those years, but he was by no means a Will Sampson or Jason Momoa.
He had the kind of blue-eyed and bronzed-skin intensity often displayed by other white men playing Indians. Henry Brandon in The Searchers (1953). Burt Lancaster in Apache (1954). Iron Eyes Cody, in those crying Indian commercials (1970–1971). Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger (2013). The list, sadly, goes on and on.
Years later, my father was arrested and sent to prison where he started up an institutional theater group. I imagine it to be called Bards Behind Bars. His letters to me mentioned his fellow inmates, his recruits, some Native, some Black, and how they were studying different plays and scenes from Shakespeare, and performing them to receptive audiences of their peers. Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth. I want to know if there was a figurative Chief Bromden, or an R.P. McMurphy in residence. Maybe my father was the figurative R.P. McMurphy, sent to the Forks Correctional Facility to rouse his incarcerated colleagues from their dormancy, the catalyst who stirred things up, a trickster who changed everything.
It sounds like the makings for the perfect Hollywood movie in the vein of the white savior narrative, the all-too-familiar trope in which a heroic white character rescues folks of color from their plight. (The best exception that I can think of is Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver, and maybe Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me.)
Movie Pitch: a white savior, convicted felon and drama teacher, directs and stages Shakespearean productions with his fellow inmates. Oz meets Stand and Deliver crossed with Kevin Costner, crossed with The Shawshank Redemption. Call it Stand and Deliver a Soliloquy. Call it The Shakespeare Redemption. Call it Dances with Inmates. Call it Taming of the Screws. Call it All’s Well That Ends Well in the Clink. Call it The Thespian of Oz.