An African-American actress was cast opposite a Caucasian actor in George F. Walker’s play Nothing Sacred (based on Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons). Her character had a bastard baby so the show needed a doll for her to swaddle onstage. The play was not written with an interracial story line (colorblind casting), so there was speculation in rehearsal as to what color the baby should be.
The prop master came back from shopping at Toys R’ Us with two realistic baby dolls: one black and one white. The director chose the black doll and the white one went back to the store for a refund.
“The doll smells like baby powder. Is that a gimmick with baby dolls these days?” the actress complained.
“It’s better than smelling like plastic,” I snapped.
She really didn’t bond with her prop, but I certainly did. So did my friend, Eric, the stage management intern. Every time we passed the prop table, we would give the doll a sentimental glance.
“Such a pretty baby.”
Nothing Sacred closed. It seemed a shame for the cute little doll to live in storage, so I asked the prop master if I could have it.
“Sure. I don’t see us needing a black baby doll any time soon. But it already went to storage.”
Eric and I rescued her like excited parents on adoption day. It took us a while to find the poor doll in the darkened bowels of a filthy warehouse. Still in her costume from Nothing Sacred, she was crammed into a box of vintage teddy bears and other prop toys. I gently lifted her up and swaddled her in my arms. Eric named her Harriet.
We took her back to the theatre and cleaned her up. I made Harriet a few frilly dresses which she proudly modeled sitting on my desk in the wardrobe room for the next year.
My career in theatre expanded. Harriet went with me back and forth across the United States. The doll lived in whatever wardrobe office I had at the time. She was very popular with everyone when she started collecting detailed outfits that corresponded to whatever play we were doing.
A nightgown out of the same fabric used for Wendy’s nightgown in Peter Pan.
A nun habit for The Sound of Music.
Wings for Angels in America.
A doublet for Hamlet.
While in rehearsal for Pearl Cleage’s new play Flyin’ West, a white baby doll was provided by the prop master that was poorly (and offensively) painted to look black. Ironically, the play’s villain is a mixed race man who’s trying to pass for white. Nobody was happy with the doll or the irony.
“I have a real black baby doll,” I announced in a production meeting.
“Can we borrow it for the show?” the director asked.
“Sure. As long as I get her back.”
Harriet now had a featured role in her second professional play.
A few years later, I get a phone call from a theatre across town.
“I heard you have a black baby doll from your production of Flyin’ West.”
“Why, yes, I do.”
“Can we borrow her?”
“Of course. As long as I get her back.”
Like the old Hollywood studio system, Harriet was a star on loan for a brand new play about the McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s. When I got the doll back, I created a resume and headshot for her. She took both Eric’s and my last name.
Harriet Milam Ingle – Actress.
I caught the kids from To Kill a Mockingbird eyeballing Harriet in my office one day. I told them to back off.
“She’s not a toy,” I snapped. They looked at me like I was nuts.
I thought Harriet’s big break would come with Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. I was a cocky stage mother and thought Harriet would be a shoe-in to play Baby Jesus. She went to rehearsal, but the actress playing The Virgin Mary didn’t like her. Harriet was fired and replaced: a roll of fabric would be used to play Jesus that Christmas. Bah-Humbug.
Black Nativity returned the next year: now a holiday tradition.
The second actress to play The Virgin Mary requested Harriet. My doll would portray Baby Jesus for the next ten years. On the side, she appeared in a Shakespeare, a Chekhov, and a few musicals between Black Nativity seasons. By this time, Harriet had a full wardrobe, played male and female roles, and could pull off any ethnicity that was asked of her. Harriet was a natural, and was getting more work than many of the union actors I knew. If she were a member of Actor’s Equity, she had enough weeks of work to qualify for health care.
She was Sarah Bernhardt.
My little Audra McDonald, only plastic.
Harriet weathered a crushing blow. I did my last Black Nativity and so did she. My bankrupt theatre closed its doors and we would be out of work for a time. The doll and most of the personal items from my office went to storage in my friend, James’ basement.
I got a call from James. His three-year old son had found Harriet.
“Is it okay with you if Travis plays with Harriet?” he asked.
Play with Harriet?
I had that doll for almost twenty-five years. I was taken-back by the question –a mere child had never played with Harriet.
“Sure. Travis can play with Harriet,” I answered.
James emailed me a picture of his son playing with the doll. It was a cute photo, but I had to suspend my-suspension-of-disbelief. Of course, I didn’t think of the doll as a real person. But it had been a long running joke in the theatre community. Everyone bought into Harriet. She was an icon. But it was time for me to stop being Mama June and let Gypsy Rose Lee be a toy.
I went back to work and every few years, I’ll work on a play with a plastic babe in arms. I can’t look at a doll on a prop table and not think fondly of the Harriet years.
I have a dream …a dream about you, BAAAAA-BY!
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.