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  WINDY CITY TIMES

GUEST COLUMN A tribute to Mariann Mayberry
by Alexandra Billings
2017-08-09

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Steppenwolf Theatre actor Mariann Mayberry died at age 52 after a long battle battle with cancer. Following is a tribute to her from Alexandra Billings.

I walked into the rehearsal room shaking from the bottom of my feet and knowing they had made a dreadful mistake. That I wasn't the human they wanted and that this was certainly some kind of colossal joke. There were actors milling around, talking, giggling, gesturing, all sparkly and shiny and filled with great hope and joyful buoyant promise. We were there to help tell a story of the forgotten and the hopeless, both of which I had come from, and both of which I knew.

And far off in the corner was a woman, sitting in a chair in the vast emptiness of the room, thumbing through a large script and mumbling to herself. She was gesturing and her hands sliced though the air with a precise delicacy. I walked up to her, past the bunches of people, and sat next to her.

"Hi," I said.

"Wanna smoke?" she asked.

"Yes," I answered.

We went outside and she spoke to me about her family, about her fear of this play and what it meant, about her life force and her self indulgence, and about her capacity to love and how it always seemed to take the wrong turn with the wrong man. I told her about being trans and about having AIDS and about my wife and my complete bewilderment at being hired at the Steppenwolf when really I should be taking tickets at the door and just helping out.

"You're here because your gift matters, Alex."

No one had ever said that to me before.

We finished smoking and headed back inside where the director, a wild woman with a fierce heart and a manic intellect, guided us through a spiritual manifestation she called The Viewpoints, which ended up changing the trajectory of my life.

After rehearsal, I hugged my new family, and headed to my car in the parking lot. As I walked toward it, the woman I smoked with and lived with and Viewpointed with and traveled with, ran up to me calling out my name.

I stopped.

"You forgot your lighter," she said, bouncing toward me and standing nose to nose.

I took it and put it in my bag. I was still reeling from Tina Landau and the messy beautiful madness she guided us toward.

"Can I tell you how much I feel your loss?" she said, seeing into the center of me. "I feel it. I love it and it makes me really happy and I just want to say you don't have to keep pretending it isn't happening. It's probably time to let that go," she smiled and her eyes widened and she held me and she wept a little in my arms. "Thanks. For everything."

I was out of breath and a little lost.

"See you tomorrow," she said.

Mariann lead me and held on to me and in the '90s when being brown and being trans was a national punchline and target practice for the transphobic and maniacal, she saw me. She received me. She allowed me and was one of the first actors to give me room and permission.

Our pal Laura D. Glenn nicknamed her "MariLou," after Cindy Lou Who from Dr. Seuss' Grinch masterpiece.

And MariLou was a force. She was a protector and a light. She laughed deep. She inhaled her life through the soul of her Art. She ingested passion and love and gave all of herself to you when you needed her and even when you didn't. She was never absent. She was never cautious or careful. She simply went. She ran into walls and doorways and was the first to volunteer to climb the highest scaffold. Her fearless nature was the ignition of her power.

And I wanted to be just like her.

We worked with each other many times and loved each other many times and showered together on stage once and had secrets and she gave me books and advise and showed me a clarity of spirit I had only dreamed about. And she was a true female friend. I was whole with her. She called me on my bullshit and she never let a moment pass where she didn't direct my attention to the thing I assumed wasn't useful.

"Alex you love hard but you don't love whole," she once said to me.

I was furious at her for saying that, because she was absolutely right.

I wasn't there at the end of her journey. I tried, but the disease had ravaged her and she was too far gone. And I will live with that for the rest of my time here. And so I see her still and I hear her still and my heart is cracked wide open and today I shattered and fell apart in my wife's arms and we both said her name out loud. And she is never very far from me because she believed in the vastness of space and the bending of time and the glory of the human condition. And that we are made of stardust and that never ever really goes away. And she cannot be taken because she is far too magnificent. And I can still hear her from across the room on that very first day at that very first rehearsal, shouting, screeching, shaking her fist at the universe:

"I Ain't Down Yet, Dammit!"

… and so I remember you MariLou. And I am different because of you. And because you are gone, I take you with me. And because of you, I allow others to see me. Broken. Messy. Whole. Shaking my fist at God in chaos and prayer. You lead me into a safe place by allowing me to find it where it all began; in the very center of me. And you saw it. I grew up with you and I will miss you every moment.

And I see now, that no matter what, I can remind myself that I need to love wholly, and not just in part, and that no matter what, no matter how much disease tries to take me or art tries to save me ... I Ain't Down Yet.

Dammit.

Fly, my love. There is no more pain.

You are free.

— Alex


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