A few years ago an author called me. Would I edit his book? It was a special book, he said with fire in his voice. It was a parable. Everything stood for something else. I glanced at his manuscript. The story was leaden, hitting me over the head with an obvious moral. The characters didn’t sing. I told him it needed work—a lot of work. He went away disappointed, unwilling to risk his spark of inspiration to let it grow into something livelier.
Luckily, other authors are wiser. Two of those local writers are behind The Awakening of Angel DeLuna, a home-grown Boulder musical that has Broadway hit written all over it. The story, about a Depression-era circus troupe, is warm and entertaining. The actors are lively and engaging. The circus acts are charming. And best of all, the characters sing—music as simple as parables that stays in your head and begs to be hummed the next day.
For good reason. This play was born as a parable, the vision of a local playwright, Judylynn Schmidt.
I met Judy about a year ago and right away was impressed. She was on fire for the musical she was writing. It sounded like a pipe dream—until, in her next breath, I heard the rest of the story: years of workshopping the play, more years of collaborating with composer/singer Lee Ellis on the music, even a reading by equity actors in New York. Over those long years the original parable had evolved. Some parts had been lost and others gained. Characters died while others were born. The original germ of inspiration had been allowed to grow by being risked, over and over, to being lost.
The Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”
It’s a truth that we all recognize—with a wince. The divorce that sweeps away our past, the life-threatening illness, the death of a loved one. Welcome all those guests, wrote the beloved Persian poet Rumi. “Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, / who violently sweep your house / empty of its furniture, / still, treat each guest honorably. / He may be clearing you out / for some new delight” (translated by Coleman Barks).
Angel DeLuna, like most of us, doesn’t want her world taken apart. It’s an enchanted world, and she, like most of us, goes to great lengths to avoid the pain of its loss. But when is enchantment endearing, and when does it blind us to something better?
As I watched Angel’s world get dismantled during the play—with lilting lyrics and clever songs—I remembered the four-thousand-year-old Sumerian tale of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. Though she possessed every power in the land of light, she “set her mind on the great below,” the text says, and prepared to journey to that land of shadows. She would do what no one before her had done: return from the Underworld!
So Inanna collected all her divine powers. She outlined her eyes in mascara and put on her sexiest lingerie. Oh, she was fine! She was, after all, Queen of Love and Life and Growing Things. She hung Earth’s finest around her neck—precious beads of lapis lazuli—and donned her robe of nobility. On her finger she slipped her royal gold ring. She picked up her scepter of lapis and her judge’s gavel, symbol of her power to decide the fate of others. Surely death could not mess with her now.
Armored in beauty, life, and power, she set out on her journey.
At the gate to the Underworld she rapped loudly. “Let me in! Don’t you know who I am?” The gate opened, but then something unexpected happened.
“Give me your scepter,” demanded the doorman. “You cannot proceed unless you leave it behind.” Inanna protested. “Sorry, Lady,” the doorman said. “Those are the rules of the Underworld.” Inanna complied. At least she still had the rest of her powers.
She approached the second gate. There the doorman demanded her gavel. This power too she gave up.
At the next gates the scene was repeated. Inanna was required to shed her robe, her ring, her necklace. Then her underclothes too were stripped from her.
Finally she arrived at the Underworld—powerless, naked, alone. And there, the text says, she was killed and her corpse hung on a hook. Not a pretty end for the queen who had everything.
Most of us recognize that relentless march of loss. One by one the things we used to define ourselves by get stripped away. We thought we were stronger than all that! But what we thought was powerful turns out to be useless. And so we are forced to give up old illusions.
At the end of the journey, who will we be?
“Where will I go, what will I see?” sing two characters in Angel DeLuna. “Whatever will become of me?”
In the ancient myth, when Inanna loses her life, the Earth also dies. Animals lose their fertility, plants can no longer produce seeds and fruit. Inanna by her own power cannot return to life. Only when her friends step in to help can she leave the Underworld and return to Earth—and then only for six months of the year.
Winter, as well as summer, will have its place on Earth. Darkness and loss will make new life possible.
Does Angel DeLuna leave illusion behind? Can she risk losing what she has to find something richer and more real? The musical is a warm and magical exploration of the question that knocks, over and over, at the door of each person’s life.
The answer it suggests is one that Rumi would have loved: sometimes even the guests who sweep us clean are angels in disguise:
Let me tell you, precious one,
No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done,
When all the legends have been told,
All that matters is your heart of gold.
At the end, the audience rose to its feet in a standing ovation. Yes, we all said. We’ve caught a glimpse of something real.
The show runs weekends in Boulder through July 10. Purchase tickets at The Dairy Center Box Office or call 303.444.7328.
The Awakening of Angel DeLuna website is here.