Monday, October 6, 2008

Darth Vader Was a Stutterer

James Earl Jones can make a pretty good speech. I think it's safe to say that I could spend the rest of my life studying elocution, diction and grammar and never be one tenth as captivating as James Earl Jones. Yea, should I spend hours before the mirror, rehearsing, refining my voice, I'm pretty sure I could never approach in eloquence or power the rich, rolling, sonorous baritone of James Earl Jones. You know what I mean. It's a voice that bellows as if from deep within the earth, or from long ago, when thunder gods called to each other from distant worlds. Surely Zeus must have sounded a bit like James Earl Jones. Put it this way: if James Earl Jones was your father and he told you to clean up your room, by god you'd do it and you'd do it now. My voice? Flaccid. The thinnest wisp by comparison.

Not that we started out on level playing fields. Nay, until he reached the age of 14, I would have had the big guy licked. James Earl Jones was a stutterer. Hard to believe, right? And just how did he overcome such a barrier to become perhaps the best-known voice of his generation? That was the crux of the lecture Alex and I attended the other night at Purdue.

The house was packed. More than a few geeks like myself crammed into the auditorium to see one of the more distinguished and recognizable actors of the past 50 years. He was introduced, quite naturally, as such--a master of the stage and the silver screen who had made his voice legendary in works such as Dr. Strangelove, The Great White Hope, King Lear, Conan the Barbarian, Field of Dreams and Cry the Beloved Country. Oh, he also had a voice role in an obscure space trilogy, but none of the presenters saw fit to mention that insignificant work in which Jones played an almost negligible part as the nondescript villain who nevertheless haunted my childhood and changed my life.

But I veer off course. The subject of the night the dilemma of illiteracy. Nearly mute for more than a decade, Jones overcame his handicap when a high school teacher discovered in his student a knack for writing poetry. Jones was made to recite a poem in front of his classroom, and, though petrified, the worlds flowed as they never had--without a stutter. The written word performed, a poem about grapefruits in the style of Longfellow. I can only imagine what his peers must have thought when such a voice issued from an erstwhile closed mouth.

Reading, writing, recitation. Education was his cure. Jones cited others with disabilities: Frederick Douglass and Helen Keller, those oppressed by ignorance and later freed by education. Yet, in spite of our right to a free public education, he spoke of the dilemma in the present tense. He never said as much, but I imagine he had in mind our crumbling schools and our disadvantaged inner-city youths, and I believe he was speaking of not just illiteracy, but of semi-literacy and poor education in general as a modern problem. The speech seemed headed toward a call to action, and I wish he would have given his audience a directive. Believe me, we were listening. Alas, after 30 minutes, none was forthcoming. That for me was the one missing piece in a mesmerizing half-hour.

But my complaint is a small one. The evening was profoundly enjoyable, and it was not all gravitas. Jones has the wit and charm to match his voice. When asked what roles were his favorites, he said (half) jokingly that he just loved his work for Verizon. After a quick Q&A, the voice was silent, and he exited the stage to a standing ovation.

Thanks to Laurie and Kate for the tickets!



Kid Shay said...

Thanks for sharing what sounded like a wonderful evening. They really never mentioned Darth Vader?

Nate and Jeff Bowler, Co-Captains said...

Not one word. The lady who introduced him, she was the president of the university or something, danced strangely around it. Maybe JEJ doesn't like to talk about Darth Vader.