How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free? How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?
They stumbled into the dressing room. Dark and cloudy, far removed from the glitz of the stage lights. When the door slammed shut, the room fell silent. Sweaty and spent, all eyes still buzzed from the show, as though charged by the lights and heat. Faces drawn tight and sore from grinning but now relaxing with real smiles. Ones they trusted.
Sam dabbed at his forehead with a towel, his chest rising and falling with the air in his lungs. His face blank of expression or emotion. The muffled clinks of utensils and clattering of dishes could be heard outside the door, as tables were cleared and cleaned by those who looked just like the man the sold out crowd had filed in to see.
“You killed it man, you killed it!
Sam nodded. Drained of emotion. He seemed to take inventory of the images of the crowd in his head. The sea of white faces, laughing and bobbing along, all dressed to the nines, jewelry and diamonds and the like.
“Maybe we should have dinner.”
The band nodded and Sam flashed a brilliant smile. The smile that had sent church girls into frenzy as he crooned front and center with the choir, the preacher’s son had a gift that was as rare as it was golden.
Sam motioned towards the door. “Out there, at a table.”
Worried eyes bounced around the room, interrupted by a swift bang on the door. Roy appeared, followed by the murmur of the crowd. “Sam!” he said, waiting until the door closed behind him, “You had those white folks dancing man!”
Everyone laughed— a nervous laugh that was cut short as Sam stretched his back, taking a long swig of water and then with a sharp look of sincerity, replied, “Hey Roy, we we’re just making dinner plans. Go ahead and reserve a table for us.”
A tense laughter swept over the room. Roy scratched the back of his head, scanning the fretful looks from the band—Gus, the drummer, and Ernie, who played guitar. They couldn’t eat there and Sam knew it. But the Coloreds andWhites signs on the bathroom doors seemed to speak to him a little louder these days.
Their headliner had been acting strange for the past few weeks. After a show in North Carolina, he’d met some college kids, and spent the remainder of the evening discussing injustice and hardship. He leaned forward in his chair, greeting fans but remaining glued to the kids’ faces as they explained the sit-ins they’d staged on campus and in town, causing a stir with local authorities. Some of their fraternity was still in jail.
The pop singer had become introspective, returning to his gospel roots. He’d been jotting down lyrics that he’d claimed had come to him in a dream. Then he’d been arrested in Shreveport, after refusing to leave a hotel when told that he couldn’t stay. The papers had caught wind of the dust up and the story had made national headlines.
Roy cleared his throat. “Hey Sam, why don’t we just take it easy. Lay low tonight, okay man?”
The singer shrugged, pausing with his bow tie loose and his shirt unbuttoned. He noticed how similar his attire was to the kitchen servers. The only thing that separated him from them was the microphone in his hand.
The room was on edge, waiting for his reaction. Only two nights ago, Sam had gone into the studio and recorded the song they had worked on for months. The chilling, poignant lyrics filled the dark, smoke riddled room, his voice channeling the anguish and despair that plagued the Jim Crow south. And at the same time, in a way that was all him and him alone, the song was hopeful, with a positive message of perseverance delivered so elegantly in that angelic tenor. Roy had been rattled, gripped with fear, awe, humility, and underneath it all, pride.
When it was over only the hiss of rolling tape remained like a charge in the air. No one spoke for several minutes. Not even Roy, Sam’s manager, who felt as though he’d just reached out and touched a comet in the sky as he stared through the glass at the singer, who seemed worlds apart from the easy going man who’d entered the booth. He rubbed his arms, prickled with chill bumps as the weight of the song haunted him to the core.
Now, Sam’s smile was like a beacon, guiding the others and breaking the tension in the dressing room. They’d let it go tonight, everyone being on edge. No one felt like going to jail because of a few filthy signs on the wall. Nothing would change tonight, but hopefully in time….
Sam’s focus returned to his shirt. His chest bounced as he laughed. An empty chuckle to himself, but his charm and charisma working to melt away the unrest in the room.
“Okay then, let’s get out of here. The food’s probably terrible anyway.”