The Dragon Lady: Lessons from a High School Drama Teacher
By Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
It was the fall of 1995. I was acting in my high school’s production of I Remember Mama, and we had just finished our penultimate dress rehearsal. The cast, mostly olive-skinned kids in yellow “Norwegian” wigs and long turn-of-the-century dresses, were huddled in groups across our dungeon-like little theatre as our drama teacher, Ms. Grinstead, spewed red-hot rage from her lips.
“If you can’t get it together, I’ll shut this whole thing down. I refuse to show crap!” I remember her screaming and then collapsing down to the floor, shoulders shaking, tears falling, face buried in her hands. This was high school drama, and this moment would forever be known as the Dragon Lady Speech.
The legend goes that as we panicked over her threat and promised one another through tears to be better tomorrow, she lifted herself from the floor, brushed the dust from her knees, walked out into our courtyard with a smile, and said something to the affect of “that should do it.”
The Dragon Lady Speech is emotional manipulation meant to scare apathetic, know-it-all teenagers into trying their best. It might seem a little cruel, but the tactic has been used many times. Even lovable Hollywood director, Rob Reiner, famously used such a speech to pull tears from young Will Wheaton and Jerry O’Connell for the train dodge scene in Stand By Me.
Nearly twenty years later, I am a drama teacher, I direct high school plays, and I have performed my own Dragon Lady routine on occasion. The most recent incarnation was a stoic, tortured character that said something like, “I don’t want to scream. I don’t want to get upset, but what can we do? If we only had more time, but we don’t.”
I smirk to think back to the screams, tears, and threats of my youth because they hold a sweet place in my heart. After that dress rehearsal, I went back to a dark house—my brothers stashed away in bedrooms watching T.V., the dinner table cleared—and scooped whatever was left on the stove onto a plate. When my mom came into the kitchen to check on me and told me to relax, the fury was unleashed.
“No, mom! You don’t understand. She said she would cut the show. The whole thing is ruined!” I screamed across the dining room table as I scarfed my dinner.
“Ay, mija,” she shook her head, “you always say that,” and left me to my scraps and antics. At night, I tossed and turned with leg cramps and anxiety nightmares—walking on stage topless, waiting in the wings and realizing I never learned my lines.
And now, as the Dragon Lady, the only difference is the new crop of white hairs that appear on my head with every production.
“Mom! You don’t understand. We are running out of time,” I told my mom during last fall’s production of Davis Alianiello’s Apocalypse or Bust. “These kids are never going to get it together!”
“Ay, mija,” she told me when she dropped off Costco pizza for the cast and crew, “you always say that.”
* * *
So why do it? For one, I think it’s obvious that I am addicted to the drama of will we or won’t we? (My mom will tell you: we always do.)
But also, when I look back at my high school drama days, I remember them as my very first best time ever. It was the first time I had a group of friends, the first time people said I was funny, the first time I felt like I had something all my own. I remember my fellow cast members and I roaming the halls of our campus in the dark of night like we owned it. There was one window that opened onto the roof of the south building, and sometimes during a late-night strike, we would crawl out onto the 3-story high roof and look up at the mountains and stars like the whole world was ours. And for a girl who came from a junior high where she was teased all day long and could never do anything right, those were my first moments of confidence.
In my 2nd or 3rd year of teaching, I met a freshman girl who had a speech impediment (she pronounced her Rs as Ws), a low reading and vocabulary level, anger issues, and an obsession with blood and death. She was known to skulk in corners, her black hair falling over the naturally porcelain-like skin of her face and covering dark eyes that she darted in a death stare at anyone who dared to come into her view. But from the first time she played a theatre game in my acting class, I was amazed with her ability to emote from head to toe and her natural instinct with movement.
Within the safety of our little rehearsals, she was able take that anger and put it on the stage and into her characters. She was an amazing character actor. Over time, given the freedom to explore, her speech improved, her reading became stronger, and she began to gain a better understanding of language and analysis. The only thing I ever expected from her was a willingness to try and her commitment, and in return I recognized her talent. I said, yes, I see you, and you are amazing. This is not unlike what Ms. Grinstead did for me.
When this girl graduated, she still had that death stare (I believe a hiss was added in later years), but she also made friends, wrote macabre poetry, played a Hamlet-writing monkey, tackled Antigone and Chekhov. I can only hope she had the best time ever.
Guest Contributer Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the poetry winner of the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange. Her manuscript, Tonight She will Dream, is inspired by her grandmother, Los Angeles, and the Arizona borderlands. She is the creator and curator of Beyond Baroque’s monthly reading series HITCHED and has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Award. Her work has been published in The Los Angeles Review, PALABRA, CALYX, and The Acentos Review. A short dramatization of her poem, Our Lady of the Water Gallons, directed by Hollywood director and Chicano activist, Jesus Trevino, can be seen at latinopia.com. She has been driving herself mad teaching drama to high school kids since 2003.