My blog gets ignored for a while when I’m busy, but I felt the need to post after the passing of one of my favorite celebrities of all time, Olivia Newton-John. Everyone who knows me knows that Xanadu is my favorite movie ever. I shout to the sky on a regular basis that I love it, and it’s my go-to comfort movie. When Olivia passed, I got numerous messages of condolence from people who know me, as if she were a friend of mine. There is no way I can not blog a tribute to her right now.
Throughout my childhood I had heard songs by Olivia Newton-John on the radio, and I’d seen her photo on an album cover that my mother had, but I had never seen her alive in 3-D. We didn’t have music videos or youtube or streaming yet, so unless you happened to catch a TV show someone was on right at the time it aired, or you went to a concert, you might never see your favorite musical acts in anything but a still photo. That all changed when I was 8 years old, and I saw Grease at the movies.
I loved Grease for many reasons, but mostly because of Olivia. Recently, I’ve been told that schools don’t do it anymore because the message is bad due to Sandy changing to a bad girl to please a man. Also, the world has changed, and people would probably call CPS on you if you let kids watch that movie with some of the content. However, when the film came out, people were a little more chill about that kind of thing, and we all saw it. I was 8, and my brother was 6, and we went with a group of similarly aged kids and a couple of moms from our neighborhood to see it on the big screen. Everyone at my elementary school was talking about it, so I know we weren’t the only kids who saw it.
That’s when I fell in love with Olivia. She was the prettiest person I’d ever seen, and you could just tell she was also nice. Lots of people in movies are beautiful, but something about her transcended mortal beauty. She was like some kind of fairy princess to me. She had an aura of goodness that made her glow in a way I’d never seen anyone glow.
A couple of years later, Xanadu came out, and again, a group of us went to see it. I was mesmerized by it. It had everything I loved: roller skating, music by ELO, colorful costumes, a fairy tale plot, and especially Olivia Newton-John, who was finally appropriately cast as the goddess she already was. I was 10 years old, and I’d found my favorite movie of all time. It imprinted on me like no other film I’d ever seen or have seen since. Later, I watched it again on cable when that finally happened, and I have owned it on VHS, DVD and now streaming. I watch it at least 3 times a year. I make sure to share on social media that I’m watching it, and I try to get others to give it a try so they can also bask in the glory that is Xanadu. I consider it my responsibility. It is a public service.
Now, I know all the shitty things that critics have said about that film, and I don’t care. They often miss the point of art, in my opinion. Also, I heard that Michael Beck, who plays her love interest in the movie, has said that the film ‘ruined his career’. I believe he overestimates himself a bit with that statement. He was flavor of the month right then because he was popular in some other film right before it, but he was the least fabulous thing about Xanadu. In fact, any decent looking guy with a talent for wearing jeans and speaking English could have been cast in that role, and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the film. He barely matters and didn’t even sing in it. Cliff Richard sang the songs we’re supposed to think are him. His acting is mediocre, and his career would have probably tanked anyway once that started being obvious. How anyone could be bitter when they got to be part of the best film ever and actually touch Olivia Newton John AND Gene Kelly is beyond me. I thought he was cute when I was 10, but he was dead to me after he said that nonsense. He needs to sit down.
But back to Olivia… In addition to her fairy princess looks, her angelic voice, and her obvious inner beauty, she was also an activist for animal rights and the founder of a cancer treatment center in Australia. She has used her fame to raise money for both causes for most of her life. I wasn’t surprised about either of those things. I could tell from the first moment I saw her that she loved animals, and her long battle with cancer made her want to help others who were suffering from it.
Olivia has been ridiculed as too soft or mainstream in the past. Someone even said she is what would happen if “white bread could sing”. But her reply was, “well, white bread is very popular, so I’m going to take that as a compliment.” She always saw the positive in things, and I agree. She wasn’t edgy or weird. She was popular. She didn’t write her own music or lyrics, but her voice was one of the best voices of our time. She was lovely and charming and perfect.
Olivia, you made the world better by simply existing., and you will always be in my heart.
I wrote this essay for THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE about the 2 year process of creating a show called THE MOTHER PROJECT: A COLLABORATION TO HONOR BLACK MOTHERS AND THEIR CHILDREN. I learned a lot. Including that many of my friends, the mainstream theatre going public, and a lot of theatre press don’t pay attention to the work of black women like they do other things. If I didn’t realize how invisible black women feel before, I can see it now.
Essay: I didn’t respect motherhood as a choice until working on this show
“In his last breaths, he cried out for his mother.” Those were the words that stuck with me on May 26, 2020, when the murder of George Floyd dominated the headlines.
While I was reading this news, a cup of coffee in hand, my own mother called me. That day happens to be my birthday, and she was calling to wish me a happy one. I don’t call her, she often complains, but my brother does, and she’d just talked to him. He was having some troubles, again, and he needed her. From the time he was a teenager, she’s been bailing him out of crisis after crisis, often at great expense to herself. When I tell her to stop sacrificing everything to jump to his aid, she cries, “You don’t understand. I am his mother! He will never stop being my child!”
She’s right. I can’t possibly understand. I’m not a mother, and I’ve never wanted to be one. I grew up in Houston watching my mother struggle against the world just to keep her kids alive. To me, motherhood always looked like heartache and sacrifice and losing your own identity in the process. Unless you had money and family support, nobody was going to help you with it, either.
But that morning I was inspired to attempt to understand the woman who raised me. For the past two years, through my work in theater, I’ve taken a journey that began in personal inspiration, through race and class, bringing me to a new outlook on what it means to be a mother. I have learned how deep is the mother’s well of heartbreak, and joy.
My mother didn’t always choose the punishing path she found herself navigating. There was an abusive and often violent stepfather, followed by poverty when they divorced, leaving her suddenly without financial support when he disappeared in order to avoid paying child support for my younger siblings. My mother was suddenly plunged into single motherhood and, despite having little prior work experience, worked two jobs to keep the rent paid. One missed paycheck would have left us homeless.
Nobody was traumatized more by these experiences than my brother. The popular, seemingly happy boy stormed furiously into adolescence as a “troubled teen.” It was the late ‘80s and my mother knew little about mental illness; nobody else seemed to know much, either. Kids who acted out were labeled “problem kids” and thrown into a place where they could be contained. At least that’s how it happened in our world, where there wasn’t any money to do anything else about it. I watched my mother fight to save him in a society that does not help unless you can pay. I stood by, helpless as she burned her few hours of spare time every week to visit her son in a juvenile jail or attend meetings at a rehabilitation center, desperately trying to learn what to do to help a child who probably needed therapy, instead of just one cage after another.
I found motherhood a terrifying prospect after what I’d seen my own mother go through. I didn’t think I had the capacity for the kind of self-sacrifice or unconditional love that motherhood required. I’m also ashamed to say now that there was a time when I didn’t even respect it as a choice.
Instead of pursuing motherhood, I’ve poured all my time and energy into a theater company I founded called Mildred’s Umbrella Theater, whose mission is to focus on the theatrical work of women. We produce plays by female writers, and often those plays involve issues of specific concern to women. That morning in May 2020, as the world grappled with the video of Derek Chauvin killing Floyd, I decided to focus on single mothers by creating a performance piece using real experiences of different women whose children had been failed by the same systems in America that were supposed to protect them.
I sketched out a basic idea for how to gather material to create a script, and received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to help make it happen. But I knew I couldn’t create this alone. First of all, I’m a director and producer, but I am not a playwright. Second, I am a white, Gen X woman with no children. A play about the experience of motherhood couldn’t be told only from my point of view. So I brought together a small group of Black, Latina and white female theater artists into the conversation.
When we started planning the actual show, the energy was strong, powerful and feminine. Everyone had plenty of ideas for mothers we could ask to be part of the interview process. I fully imagined my mother would be one of them, since she was the one who inspired the idea in the first place, but theater is a collaborative process, and as we collaboratively worked, our conversations moved away from single motherhood in general, to the experiences of mothers of color specifically. The consensus was that children of Black mothers are the ones who are most consistently failed by the American system. Black mothers are roughly three times more likely than white mothers to die in or just after pregnancy. Doctors are more likely to undertreat them for pain. The differences continue after birth. To cite only one example, researchers at Children’s National Hospital found that Black children are far more likely than their white peers to die in gun violence, including police encounters.
I let the vision evolve away from my own story. It was uncomfortable for a short while, and it even hurt a little to do so, but I realized it was the right choice. As hard as my mother had to work, often at jobs with crappy pay, nobody would have ever decided not to hire her because of her race. She was not, as far as I know, treated as subhuman by hospital staff or looked at with suspicion when she was shopping, even though she was pretty much broke at times. It’s easy to forget your privilege when you know that you did suffer, but listening to other people can often put a sharper perspective on that suffering.
These Black mothers had a different experience where race was concerned, but they still had a lot in common with my mother. We set out to highlight the joys and heartbreaks of American motherhood and that’s exactly what we were doing. In fact, the process that followed helped to make my original idea even clearer.
Every mother we interviewed was eager to tell her story to people who wanted to hear it. It was heartbreaking to discover that some of them seemed surprised that anyone even cared. One mother said that she was used to feeling invisible. Her son was the best thing she’d done in her life, and she sometimes questioned her own purpose, now that he’d been taken from her.
“I raised him to be a kind, generous man,” she remembered, “And he was. He lived to help others.” Her voice shook as she tearfully told us the story of her only son being gunned down by a police officer. “How can someone just kill your child?” she cried, bringing us to tears with her.
A single mother of five, a full-time nurse, was exhausted with guiltover missing the signs that her beautiful, artistic son was suffering before he killed himself at age 13. “He put on a brave face for me,” she said, looking at the photos of her son and his art that graced the walls of her living room. “He didn’t like to burden me with his troubles.” She was angry that the staff at her son’s school had failed to protect him from the bullying that drove him to desperation, but after his death, she turned her anger into activism and was spending her energy to help others. Her young daughter sat beside her as she spoke, studying the pain on her mother’s face in a way that dragged me back many years, as I watched my own mother unravel, clinging to my brother in a desperate attempt to keep him from a similar fate.
Along with the pain, all of the mothers also recalled ecstatic joy. Even the mothers who had lost their children beamed when asked about the experience of giving birth and meeting their children for the first time. “I looked around, seeing everyone else with theirs, and I could now say, ‘This one is mine,’” one of them remembered. “What a beautiful thing that God has created for me.”
They each proudly related tales of triumph where their children had done something extraordinary, whether it was a major gift or accomplishment, or simply a touching act of kindness. One son had given his mother a single, perfect rose every Valentine’s and Mother’s day, from the time he was a small boy until his death in his 30s. “He never forgot,” she said, smiling at the memory. The youngest mother we interviewed, a new mother with a toddler and another on the way, was excited to give her girls the life she never had herself. Her dearest hope is for “each to have their own identity and be confident.” She never wanted them to feel unseen.
Not one of those women regretted her choice to have children. Whether they had stumbled into motherhood as a teen, or struggled to conceive for years before it happened, they all fiercely defended their identity as mothers. My own mother sometimes laments lost opportunities, and I certainly see that it would have been much easier to navigate some of the obstacles she was forced to encounter if she hadn’t had three children clinging to her the entire time, but she never expresses anything but joy about her choice to be a mother.
When she called me that morning on May 26, 2020, she said to me, “The day you were born was one of the best days of my life. I am so proud to be your mother.” I realized I needed to do better to deserve her devotion. I should definitely call her more.
I don’t regret my own choice, but I have changed my judgment about motherhood. For some, it is a choice, and for others it is something that happened to them, but to be a good mother takes incredible strength. Mothers are superheroes. There is no shame in calling on them when you need them, and we should also remember to call them when we don’t.
Jennifer Decker is the founder and artistic director for Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company and English faculty at Houston Community College. “The Mother Project: A Collaboration to Honor Black Mothers and Their Children” will run May 19-28, 2022 at the DeLuxe Theatre in the Fifth Ward. The show is “pay as you can,” which hopefully will make it accessible to everyone who wants to see it.
This year’s reading marks the 23rd anniversary of the Columbine High School mass shooting, which was among the first to ignite major discussions about school safety, access to firearms, and youth mental health.
Founded in 2019, #ENOUGH is a national playwrighting competition for teens to “confront gun violence by creating new works of theatre that will spark critical conversations and inspire meaningful action in communities across the country,” according to its website.
Sometimes a photo pops up on social media, and at first glance, it’s just a random photo of random people. To anyone who wasn’t there, that’s all it is; completely unremarkable. It’s a fairly boring photo of some attractive people sitting passively and fairly expressionless, posing for a group photo. It almost looks like one of those school class photos from elementary school in the way it is laid out.
However, if you were there, you might be transported to the moment of the photo. There are humans involved, and if you were there, and in the photo, you know exactly what was going on with at least one of them.
This photo was an early play done by my theatre company, Mildred’s Umbrella Theater. It was an original play called TOMORROW MORNING. It was written by our playwright at the time, John Harvey (top left), with input by myself (in the jean jacket) and Greg Dean (down right). We had just had our first successful show a few months before, and we excitedly cranked out another one in a very tight window of time when we had the space again.
The play was about a train taking a group of people to the Auschwitz museum, but they eat some drugged food and a wormhole opens in time , and they find that they are really going to a concentration camp. Two of the actors were waiters who turned into Nazis at the end, and one was a singing angel on a separate platform that watched in horror as the events unfolded, and reacted in song. The idea was really ambitious, and we didn’t have enough time or resources to fully realize the project, and it was kind of a mess when it opened. It had some really good moments, but we needed more time to make it what it deserved to be. We learned a lot from that show. Here are some photos from the show. they aren’t the best. We were just learning to be digital at that point, but you can tell that the show was far more interesting than the cast photo.
If you just look at that cast photo with us in our street clothes, it looks like a passive cast photo, but there is so much going on when I look at it. There are so many stories here.
I think I was coerced into sitting for this photo, and was really about to lose my mind trying to get the show up and not kill anyone. I was pissed off at everyone by about this time (you can see the tension if you look closely). Not that it was anyone’s fault. I just was acting in the play, and producing the whole thing on a shoestring. Back then, I always ended up dealing with the set, and picking up slack in every area of the show, so I was super stressed out every time we opened anything.
A few people in this picture don’t speak to each other anymore. There are 2 friendships and one romantic relationship here that ended very tragically.
There is one person in the photo that none of us talk to anymore. Several of us have that person blocked from our lives in every way.
Two of these people are now married to each other and living in Europe. I keep in touch with them.
One of these people now lives in New York, and another lives in Austin. I still talk to them online.
Of the ones who still live in Houston, I am still very close to two of them. I run into two of the others once in a while, and we say hello and remember each other fondly.
When we are all gone, this photo will go back to being unremarkable. A photo like this means nothing if you weren’t there.
I have had one of the busiest few months ever lately, so instead of an essay, I decided to do another episode of “Awesome women I know!” Today’s awesome friend is COURTNEY LOMELO!
Courtney is one of the coolest friends I’ve ever had. She’s like that one girl in high school that is gorgeous and popular, but still nice to you, even if you’re a dork, because she’s way too mature to be a mean girl. She’s one of those people that I can’t even believe is my friend sometimes, because she’s just so perfect.
She’s also one of the subjects of one of the best photos I’ve ever taken, which only happened because Courtney (and Arianna, pictured with her) is so cool. I felt like Linda McCartney after taking that photo.
Arianna Bermudez and Courtney Lomello in a limo.
She’s also one of the biggest advocates and rescuers of animals I’ve ever seen. She’s the Goddess of dog-saving.
This week in “Awesome Women I Know”, I want to blog about my sister, Dani Decker!
She’s 7 years younger than me, so I was grown long before she was, but now she’s a friend.
My sister has always been a person who knows her own mind, and goes for what she wants. She’s smart, and she has a lot of sense when it comes to business, which is one of those things that isn’t in my skill set, so I admire that!
She and her husband, Tom, ran a retail energy efficiency business for a while, until they got so big their suppliers couldn’t keep up with them, so they decided to start manufacturing their own products. Soon after, their competitors started buying their products, too! So, they founded The Attic Depot, which they run with Tom’s brother, Tim. The Attic Depot offers solar attic ventilation and energy efficiency products to home improvement and service contractors. They are now too big for retail and have moved to wholesale, so they can supply other home improvement companies. Dani wears many hats, serving as the Operations Manager, Human Resources,Accounts Receivable, Accounts Payable, Customer Account Manager, and Shipping Manager. So she’s a ROCK STAR at running that business.
Also… Solar power FTW!!!
She is also the mom of my fabulous nephew, Ethan, who is a recent high school grad contemplating his future, and she has 2 happy, chubby, sweet pups, Lucky and Buster.
We are often night and day about things, but I admire the things about her that are different from me. A sister is a built in forever friend, and I’m so glad I have mine!
This month in Fabulous Women I know…. My high school friend, Sonja McKenzie!
Sonja and I were in a gang of 5 girls in high school. Whatever you do, don’t judge our hair. It was the 80’s, and we were 15. It definitely could have been worse.
We were in the band, and she was a sophomore when I came in as a freshman, and she was super nice , so I lucked out having a friend that knew everyone already and knew how everything worked around there. She graduated the year before me, and we lost touch. It was the 80’s, and there was no social media or email, so it happened
We reconnected a few years ago on social media, and she’s just as amazing now as she was then. She is the mom of Four amazing, good looking and smart kids. She’s also worked for Dress for Success, Planned Parenthood and Urban Teens, because she’s the kind of person who wants to make the world a better place.
Nowadays she is an elected school board official, and just recently, she became the President elect of OSBA (Oregon School Board) and in 2023, she will be the first African American woman to serve as President of the Oregon School Board Association.
I’m so proud of this lady, and so glad I still get to be her friend. She is a super hero! I hope I can see her again soon, and we can get a photo of us together now to add to this.
Since I haven’t blogged in a while, I thought I’d better do another FABULOUS WOMEN I KNOW Post to keep the dream alive. Today, I want to tell the six people who read my blog about a fabulous friend of mine, Arianna Bermudez Case!
I met Arianna in around 2012, when she did choreography for a show I was in. Shortly after, I cast her as the lead in one of our shows, CARNIVAL ROUND THE CENTRAL FIGURE. Since then, she has worked with Mildred’s Umbrella in several key acting roles, and she’s a very busy and popular actor all over Houston. She’s a fantastic actor, and she can also sing and dance, which makes her a superstar to me.
In addition to this,she has a fancy job as an Executive assistant, which means she is super smart and organized. She’s on the board of the theatre now and proof reads all my press releases so I don’t mess up.
Even though she is a superstar on stage and off, the most amazing thing about her is that she’s like a Disney princess. She always looks great. I have never seen her when she doesn’t look like a fashion plate. Also, we went on a group trip with some other ladies one time, and I shared a room with her in the Air B&B. I’m not lying. She wakes up in the morning looking like this:
She is an all around fabulous lady, and I just wanted to give her a shout out!!
I came across a picture of you online. You are the me of I2 years ago. You are standing in an art gallery, next to a carved, wooden horse, wearing your favorite blue dress with the seahorse embroidered on the skirt. You are there because you directed and produced a play in that art gallery. You are smiling, but you are miserable. You aren’t even really sure you will survive. I’m here to tell you that you will. Eventually.
You started a theatre a few years before with nothing but dreams and fairy dust. It consumes you, but it never makes you full. You are the only constant, but nobody seems to see you. They only see the people you are putting in the light. You don’t want to kill it, so it’s killing you. You try to walk away, and people say, ‘No! We need you’. You’re afraid that if you leave, you’ll have to leave behind your self-worth, which is tied to that theatre like a battered hostage. The money you work hard to raise pays everyone else, but there’s nothing left for you, so you also have to work in other places for money so you can live. Twice, you worked 48 hours straight with no sleep so a show could open on time. You once went seven years in a row with no vacation.
Three months before this picture was taken, your marriage fell apart. One week before the photo was taken, a rebound relationship that you fell into in a panic crashed and burned, leaving you feeling like trash. You have friends, but you’ve been away from them so much working that they often forget to invite you anymore. You turn to unstable types that make a point to be where you are to get a piece of what you’ve created. They wear the faces of friends, and your head is such a mess, you can’t tell the difference. It’s just nice to have someone to talk to sometimes. When this photo was taken, a person you thought was a friend had just turned on you. She had sucked all the blood she could from you and found you not to be useful anymore. While you stand here smiling, she is tweeting about what garbage you are. You think she might be right.
You are ashamed that you are falling apart, that you are spending all your time working or drinking wine alone That you lash out at people in messages That you cry almost every day. That you have wondered more than once if anyone would care if you just weren’t there anymore. You stay on that lonely island that you created because it seems like all you have, and if you leave it, it will die. Or maybe you will die. Everyone else will go wherever they all go when they don’t need what you have to offer them there, and you will be stuck where you are, holding an empty bag.
You need rest. You need help. You need therapy. There is no time for any of that. You are a wreck.
I am here to tell you that it will get better. Not right away. You still have a few more pretend friends to deal with and a couple more shitty relationships, because all you really want is love and security, and you keep missing the mark. The universe will finally lead you to someone worthy, and you will marry him. Your real friends will forgive you for all the years you were crazy. They will welcome you back with open arms. Others will shut you out and never forgive you, but you don’t need those people. They think they are nicer than they actually are.
You will never find a fairy godmother. You will never be fully appreciated for your sacrifice. But you will find a way to find your worth in other ways. You will find ways to make it not matter so much.
I look at you, pretty, blue-dress girl, and I give you a hug in my mind. You are in the last days of your youth, and you can’t even enjoy it. You have done something great, whether you or anyone else can see that you have. I’d never want to be you again. You are a sad, lonely wreck. But you’ll be ok eventually.