I went to an all-boy catholic school in the Philippines, The Claret School of Manila. Every year was the Christmas pageant and surely every aspiring actor wanted to be cast in the Nativity scene. I passionately wanted to play the role of Mary. In seventh grade I auditioned for that role. But as usual I did not get the role. It went to my arch nemesis Lito.
Every time there was a production and there was a female character, the teachers always cast the most effeminate boy with light skin. That would be Lito. He always got the plum roles. He played Alice in “Alice in Wonderland,” while I played the plant. In the Hungarian fairy tale production, he played the princess and I played the tambourine while he danced. He was the hibiscus and I was your lowly porcini mushroom in the showbiz food chain. I had a theory. Teachers chose him more than me because he was in the closet, like a flower that never really bloomed but nevertheless still a flower. Those who were out were relegated to supporting roles. I was the Hattie McDaniel or Regina King of school productions.
Our drama teacher Mr. Dominguez announced that it was not just the nativity scene that was going to be presented but also scenes before the birth of our Savior. He assigned me to play the role of the innkeeper’s wife, a small but pivotal role. I would be the one to tell the future parents of the king that there was no vacancy but there was a stable in the back that they could use. I was the bearer of bad news. If it weren’t for me Christ would probably had been born in Beirut or Dubai.
For the wardrobe, Mr. Dominguez said, Joseph and Mary will be given costumes. Lito sparkled like a snowflake when he heard the news. He got to wear the blue crepe tunic with an invisible zipper and the vintage veil made of Egyptian cotton. For me, the teacher said, “improvise!” Which was quite challenging since all I had where chinos and empire cut batik shirts.
When I told my mother that I needed a costume, she pondered for a minute and said, “Come to my closet.” Honestly, I had been there many times. I had spent many afternoons there. My mother’s closet was a sartorial paradise. She was fashionable and very up to date with the latest trends. She was the Donna Mills of Manila. Her closet was divided into sections. Daytime dresses, pantsuits and of course my favorite, the evening wear section where she kept her couture piece, her exquisite opera dress made of chartreuse taffeta with a picture of a woman being dressed by her maid, hand painted by the famous Filipino artist Mario De Rivera.
She surveyed her collection but it seemed she had stylist’s block and couldn’t come up with an ensemble. She took me to the mall but nothing piqued her interest. We went to see a movie instead. Actually I didn’t think she was in the mood to shop anyway, she just wanted to go the movies. I was always her companion in going to the movies. I never saw Star Wars because we saw The Turning Point. I didn’t see E.T. because she dragged me to see the Coal Miner’s Daughter.
We saw The Eyes of Laura Mars starring Faye Dunaway. It’s about a fashion photographer who had premonitions of violence during photo shoots. She could foresee a crime scene. Just like the role I was about to play, the bearer of the bad news. But this prognosticator was unique. Laura Mars always wore a skirt that had four openings so she could spread her legs when she took pictures in different angles.
After the movie my mother said, “I think I have an idea of what you can wear to the pageant.” We went back to her closet and she pulled out a garment bag that said, “Dry clean only.” In it was a coat made of silk organza with shoulder pads. It was below the knee and had four openings. “This is so Faye Dunaway,” I said to myself. When she put the coat on me, I quietly transformed from a catholic schoolboy to the hostess of the Bethlehem Ritz Carlton.
“For your veil, you can use this,” she handed me a shawl made of Belgian lace that gradated from petroleum black to Nordic grey. She put it on my head and gingerly draped it on my shoulders creating a magnificent cascade. “Just be careful when you bow your head, it might drop,” she cautioned.
The day of the pageant came. We all changed into our costumes and when Lito stood beside me with his plain blue tunic, he looked like a morose Stevie Nicks while I was radiant Laura Mars.
My scene came. Joseph and Mary knocked and asked if there was any vacancy. The innkeeper checked the registry, and that was my cue. I came out, confidently and with an air of sympathy informed the would-be foster parents of the son of God the bad news, “There are no more rooms but we have a stable in the back that you can use, a cow lives there but I don’t think he’s coming back tonight.” I saw the perturbed reaction of the teachers and priests watching from the audience. They could not figure out if the setting was in Israel or Knotts Landing.
During the curtain call the cast came out singing, “Joy to the World” after which we all bowed. I remember what my mother said about bowing. So I did what Laura Mars would do. As I heard the click of my mother’s Polaroid camera, I stretched my left leg backwards and did a half split then tilted my head instead of bowing.
I really thought I was channeling Laura Mars, but it was actually my mother who had the power to foresee the future and to prevent a crime scene from happening. She had a premonition of what would happen if I did not get the proper costume, Lito would have shined all by himself. Like any other mother she protected her son through shoulder pads and Belgian lace.
I was never cast in any other production after that pageant; Lito went on to play Anna, Annie and Wendy. I was demoted to craft service. But it didn’t bother me; I still got to play the best-dressed character in the pageant. Last year I received a Christmas card from Lito, it was a picture of him with his wife and three daughters. He’s still in the closet. As for me, I just sent him a card that said Merry Christmas signed Laura Mars.