William Goyen’s House of Breath opened on November 4, 1969 at Trinity Rep, in Providence, Rhode Island. Every year I celebrate this play on this date. Why? Three reasons: it was a theatrical production ahead of its time, I became a member of Actors’ Equity during its run, and it marks the occasion I fell in love with Roger Morgan.
Directed by the brilliant Adrian Hall, with sets and lighting designed by Eugene Lee and Roger Morgan, House of Breath was a powerful, poetic piece about an East Texas family in the early twentieth century. The production pioneered non-traditional casting before the term even existed, and explored trans-gender issues in flamboyant Adrian-Hall-style. The late great Ethyl Eichelberger (known at the time as Jim) played the role of a sexually repressed young man whose imagination transforms him into a black showgirl. I played Jim’s dead sister Jessie, brought to life through the memories of her family. (See Roger, above, in 1969, and me, below, in House of Breath.)
It’s hard to describe how everyone loved that play. We knew it was groundbreaking. And it’s romantic to remember the magic of that opening night when Roger and I were caught completely off-guard by the depth of our connection. Each of us thought it must have been the high of the production that swept us off our feet, and partly of course, it was. What I have recognized over forty years of acknowledging November Fourths, however, is that the collaborative experience of that project provided the foundation upon which Roger and I subsequently built our lives. The spirit of the work at Trinity quickened the pace of our courtship – of course we fell in love that night! We didn’t know at the time that it marked the beginning of a collaborative, creative and frequently improvised life.
Roger always loved one particular moment in the play. Young Jessie (my character) remembers her brother dressed up as a King in a pageant, and declares with great wonder: “This is the wisdom I have learned!” referring to the power of memory.
“This is the wisdom I have learned” is one of those code phrases that pops up in our marital dialogue, often with humor as a “duh” kind of realization. Recently, however, the phrase has come to represent the collaboration, risk, and belief that we’re doing something that matters: 3 of the 6 Principles of Theatrical Intelligence. I shall always be grateful that Roger and I met in the middle of the wonder that inhabited House of Breath and Trinity. It was within that context that our lives changed forever.