DDT and Dinner Theater: or, the politics of fundraising

Published February 6, 2016 by The Merida Review

 

I used to live in Merida, in the Yucatan part of Mexico, which was a perfectly pleasant place to live (well, it gets awfully hot for 2/3 of the year) with tons of perfectly pleasant (and some really bizarre) expats to hang out with. Because I am a poet and I was hungry for some creative companionship (meaning, just someone to hang out and talk shop with), I started going to a poetry open mic night that was all in Spanish. They said they welcomed anyone who spoke any language, but lots of nights it was all Spanish speaking folks and me. My Spanish is really bad, even after trying hard to learn (guess I’m just not one of those people for whom languages is easy or even achievable), so I usually couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, and I would picture what I thought their poetry was about, by their expressions, their passions, their style.

Sometimes other English speaking people would wander through, mostly I got contempt, however, for not being able to learn Spanish, for not writing poetry in Spanish (I wasn’t even at the level where I could’ve written Mary had a little lamb in Spanish), for not integrating more with my new city.

The language thing is such a big freaking deal in poetry, you know? Yeah, I eventually discovered that if I abandoned reading my own poetry and read stuff by famous people like Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, etc, I became much more popular. Because they’d heard of them, they’d studied them in English. They respected them.

Eventually, however, another English speaking writer had the great idea to start an open mic for the expats. All in English. And even though she was a little strange, and people were kinda hesitant to hang out with her, I was all behind the idea, and helped track down a location for it. And then eventually started being in charge of it when she got mad and left. That took awhile, though. This is not a piece on how difficult it is to keep an open mic going, keep it vibrant and fun and all that. Not going there. It was a great place to meet all sorts of creative people, though.

After awhile, a person who I barely knew, who became a really good friend, brought in acts of a play that she was writing, for fun. Well, I think she was writing it for the fun of it, I don’t really know. Whoever happened to be at Open Mic night that particular night would take a part and we would read through it, and it was enormous fun. When it was over, we thought we should have a special one night read through of the whole thing, and which ended up being a wild party at which everyone involved drank tons, and I said something like, Golly, we should put this on as a real play!

(Cue Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.)

Jill, the author, had acted in dinner theater productions when she lived in the states, and the play was a fun murder mystery dinner theater piece, with eccentric characters, and lots of inside jokes about Merida and expats. We couldn’t really do it for money, so we put it on for charity. Jill had worked with a no kill animal shelter in the Merida environs, and we donated half to them, and half to an orphanage for human children.

Choosing the charities was awful. Someone said we should vette them and make sure that none of our donations would go to paying anyone’s salaries. We had to meet with representatives of said charities and ask them questions. I hated that part of it. I didn’t care what charity we donated money to, I was only in it for the theater part. I was the assistant director. I told the rest of them to pick any charity they wanted, I didn’t care. The more I heard of different charities, the more they all sounded like they needed us. You couldn’t give money to all of them. We weren’t business people, we didn’t really think it would be all that much money, but hey. Let those picky people do the grunt work. I would work for whatever charity. They’re all worthy, just pull one out of a hat.

And there were plenty of other things to worry about, trying to put on a mystery dinner theater. Finding actors, finding a restaurant willing to take us on (they have to choreograph the dinner to go with the breaks in the play), props, costumes, tickets, poster printing, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing…

It was fun, and people enjoyed it, and we decided to come back and do one the next year. Jill wrote a new play, and they had to choose charities all over again, same location, though we looked at others, same headaches, some new headaches, much drinking throughout, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing.

And Jill said, “No more! I can’t do this again!”

So a couple years later, one of the actors and I were moaning about having no play, and we remembered another actor had said she’d written plays in the past, so we contacted Alicia and, by golly, she wrote a play for us. And we did it all over again, without Jill. And learned to really appreciate all the work Jill had done. We weren’t as experienced as Jill, and we weren’t able to anticipate details ahead like Jill. We muddled through the best we could.

So, we needed a charity. One of my fellow poets was hanging around with a woman who, besides running her own practice, was donating her time to a project where they replace the eyes of children who’ve lost their eyesight to cancer with prosthetics. So they look normal and other people don’t make fun of them and it makes their life better. For some reason, Yucatan has more eye cancer than anywhere else. One night, Gina had shown me before and after photos of some of her kids, and it had left a big impression, let me tell you. So when they were cluelessly looking for a charity to support, I offered up “In Your Eyes.”

Which turns out to be a bare bones charity run by Gina and her brother, she is an optometrist and he makes prosthetic eyes. I think. Most of these conversations were in Spanish, and I could be wrong. They operate on very little money. Jonathan (my friend the poet) was putting together charity poetry reading fundraisers for them. Us doing this play and donating the money to them was one of the biggest things that had ever happened to them.

They didn’t have a website, they didn’t have a facebook page. People started asking if it was a legitimate charity, to which I emphatically said Yes!, having seen those before and after photos. We asked for a brochure to use the information in our publicity. They didn’t have one. Julie, who was loosely allied with the play, offered to do a facebook page for them.

Another friend, who works with a charity who provides sex education to young Yucatecans, trying to prevent teenaged pregnancies and prevent the spread of AIDs through safer sex, was talking to me at a Christmas party and he told me if we donated half our money to his charity, he would promote the play through their mailing list, and I went to Alicia and told her that, and we decided Hell, yeah. Mark’s is a highly organized charity, with organized big-ticket fundraisers and a huge mailing list.

So there we were, working with a huge, organized charity, and a little, loosely run, take-them-on-faith charity. Both of them perfectly deserving. The money we donated to the big charity was a little spit in the bucket for them. Gina cried when I gave her the money we’d raised for her kids. And later sent me photos of the specific kids that we’d helped.

On the last night of the show, we made these giant checks and presented them to representatives of the charities, as is common in these situations. (It took a day or two longer to actually get the real money to them.) And, as I’ve said, I was only in it for the thrill of the theater. I didn’t care who we donated the money to. But since I was the one who suggested In Your Eyes, they treated me like I was something special. It was embarrassing, actually. I didn’t deserve it.

In Your Eyes would’ve never survived the vetting process we’d had the other years, believe me.

So we are all standing around afterwards, being polite and drinking more, the actors finally relaxing, and I was introducing Gina and Jonathan to people, and one bright soul asked why there is so much eye cancer in Yucatan, which I had never thought to ask. I guess I figured the answer would be too complicated and scientific for me to understand. DDT. The fertilizer which was banned in the US years and years ago. They use it in Yucatan. It runs off the fields and gets in the water system. Gina acted out a mother washing her baby’s clothes in the water, wrapping the baby in a blanket washed in DDT runoff water. The baby getting cancer.

If the cancer goes beyond the eyes, it gets to the brain, and they don’t live through it.

And me. The “Isn’t it fun to put on a play!” person who didn’t care where the money for charity went. Suddenly cared. Suddenly felt like the smallest, pettiest person on earth. And Gina, with her little charity, trying her damnedest to fix something that shouldn’t be happening in the first place, suddenly seemed like a saint. Because we weren’t very business oriented, our expenses ended up being so high that all we managed to raise for each charity was a couple hundred bucks. A spit in the bucket for one charity. Enough, though, to make Gina cry.

There must be a moral to this. And it must be staring me right in the face. But here I am in Ohio, going around trying to find people to put on a play, just for the hell of it. Not sure how to find anyone who writes plays around here, but I’ll figure it out.

You can always find actors, can’t you?

Maybe we’ll even donate money to charity? Oh. There’s the moral. Right there.

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