So I was in a Chinatown dollar store, buying props for the 99-Cent Miss Saigon. We need big bunches of fake money for the show, and as I was wandering about, finding poppers and sparklers, I saw it–tons of fake money, printed on cheap newsprint, bundled beautifully, for about $1.99 per four wrapped stacks. I bought about five of them.
That night, I proudly showed it to my cast. Alexis’ face froze. She told me that I had purchased Chinese “Hell Money”, joss paper traditionally burned at the grave of dead ancestors. It’s bad luck to have it, to keep it, to use it in any flippant or disrespectful way.
I was embarrassed by my basic ignorance, of course–but more than that, I felt the cold pit in my core. I’m only slightly superstitious in my day to day–but terribly more so in the theater. It’s “The Scottish Play”, and “break a leg” (never, under any circumstances, “good luck”). Whistling in a theater is bad, and any untoward expressions of joy or optimism will net you a three lap run around the theater followed by having to beg to be let back in.
Clearly, this money was bad news and had to be burned. Ben’s dad was in town, and told me to burn it to my paternal grandparents, and pray over it–or at the least, send it up with intention.
So we did, tonight. Lined a stock pot in tin foil, set up on our back stairwell in Oakland, and burned it, bundle by bundle. We sent it up to, among others, my paternal grandparents, and Ben’s–and various other dead relatives and friends (like my great-great-grandfather, who, in the halcyon years in Vilna before World War II would take my great-aunt Golda to the theater every Shabbat evening).
But mostly, I sent it up to my heroes–my ancestors of the theater: Reza Abdoh and Bert Brecht and all Brecht’s female dramaturgs who did most of his work (Elizabeth Hauptman, et al.); Elia Kazan and Gypsy Rose Lee and Richard Pryor and Madeleine Kahn and George M. Cohan and Ron Vawter and Spaulding Gray, the original Thuy in Miss Saigon. And others who have inspired me: Betty Friedan and Susan Sontag, Sam Mockbee (the founder of Rural Studio), and Huey P. Newton and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr. And I sent some money to all of the actors and actresses and chorus kids who struggled and tried to make it and ended up dying with failed dreams in Hemet, or places like it.
The fire looked beautiful–green and blue flames. The paper, as it peeled away in heat and ember, looked variously like anemones and roses, stars and cities and hell itself.