All of Jessie's world is a stage, and she's determined to become a player, in Drama Queens in the House by Julie Williams.
Sixteen-year-old Jessie Jasper Lewis doesn't remember a time in her life when she wasn't surrounded by method actors, bright spotlights, and feather boas. Her parents started the Jumble Players Theater together, and theater is the glue that holds her crazy family together. But when she discovers that her father's cheating on her mother with a man, Jessie feels like her world is toppling over. And on top of everything else, she has to deal with a delusional aunt who is predicting the end of the world. Jessie certainly doesn't feel ready to be center stage in the production that is her family. But where does she belong in all of this chaos?
About the Author
Julie Williams is the author of the young adult novel-in-poems Escaping Tornado Season. She was an adjunct professor at California State University teaching for the communication studies and theater departments for twenty years. She and her husband live in Minnesota.
Read an Excerpt
Drama Queens in the House
By Julie Williams
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2014 Julie Williams
All rights reserved.
the luckiest girl in the world
The theater is lit up like an opening-night gala celebrating the first show of a new season. It's graduation night, the second Thursday in June, and this gala is all about me.
JESSIE JASPER LEWIS ... my name on the marquee in lights.
Well, the marquee actually reads THE JUMBLE PLAYERS. But a dozen Japanese maples dotting the patio are sparkling with lights. All the windows in the old mansion part of the theater are twinkling, too.
And there IS a huge banner strung across the stage door that reads WAY TO GO, JESSIE!
My dad hops out of the front passenger seat and runs around to open the limo door for me.
My best friend Bits leans over me, letting out a huge sigh. "Oooooh! I never see it like this. I'm always inside by now."
"I know! It's gorgeous, isn't it?"
"Like Broadway!" From Bits that's the highest praise. "And tonight it's all for you!"
She gives me a shove.
I tumble out onto the driveway. For such a tiny person — not even five feet tall — Bits sure is strong.
She slides out after me. "Let's go see what David's got to eat ..." She's also skinny as a rail and always hungry. I'm always hungry, too. But when you're five foot eight at fifteen that's a given.
Mom has gracefully alighted from the massive Hummer limo. I envy that grace. She and Bits are the same height and so much alike you'd think Bits was her kid, not her niece. (My aunt Loretta looks like a linebacker.) Like Bits and unlike me, Mom has full control of all her limbs.
She grabs my dad's hand, and they lead the way toward the stage door.
Let me just say, that though we live a dramatic life, we are not accustomed to this extravagant mode of transportation. Okay, the truth is I've never ridden in any kind of a limo before. And Hummers are — well, kind of disgusting. Plus, we live only two houses down from the theater (572 steps to be exact), and my main transportation going anywhere else has always been the city bus system. If it weren't for our tech director's other life running a limo service, we'd be in the theater van.
I grab Grandmama's arm and help her out of the limo. I think it's safe to say she's never had such a fancy ride either. Although you never know. She's wearing her red suit and her favorite red church hat and looking pretty sharp for a lady who just turned eighty.
Suddenly the stage door is thrown open and the entire JUMBLE acting and tech company, administrators, students, and all their families explode out and down the stairs shouting, "Way to go, Jessie!"
When I open my eyes again, I see they are all wearing theatrical costumes of one sort or another. And those who just got here from the school ceremony are madly pulling on capes and hats and sashes and masks and swords and things.
Ooooh, I see. It's more than costumes. We've got a little theatrical production going on here.
Lydia and Edward (co-founders with my parents of the theater and my friend David's parents) hold up a sign that reads JESSIE JUMBLE — YOUNGEST VALEDICTORIAN OF UMLS!
Everybody reads it out loud. Sort of in unison.
My cousin Bartle has grabbed a sign that reads YOUNGEST UMLS GRADUATE EVER!
More people read aloud, or I should say, shout aloud.
"She's the first black graduate, too," Grandmama mutters.
"Biracial," Mom counters. It's an old argument, one neither of them will ever win.
My dad pulls her toward the steps where a bunch of theater school kids are waving signs announcing my university choices, prompting huge cheers from the crowd.
"Ahhhh, gee," I say, doing an awkward curtsy and nearly spraining an ankle.
Today, I'm the star. "Thanks, everyone ... I could get used to this."
But, of course, they're not done.
Brad, our costumer and dear friend, cues the entire group, and they pull out smaller signs that say SHE CHOSE THE JUMBLE!
That makes me laugh.
And then they launch into a song-and-dance routine. Yup. Right there on the steps of the stage door, down onto the patio, and out into the parking lot.
The theater name is an acronym for the founders' names — J for Jasper Lewis (my last name), U for Una, my mom, and M for Mark, my dad. And then the Benedicts — Lydia and Edward. J-U-M-B-L-E. Oh, and it also stands for our six cats (Judge, Uncle, Maggie, Brick, Lettuce, and Elbows). But that's another story.
Now a news team has pulled into the driveway and they are filming us.
They're here — as always — because of my parents. Actors, directors, teachers — they are very well known not just here in the Twin Cities, but all over the Midwest. The JUMBLE Players even won a regional Tony a few years ago for a show my parents starred in. They're used to having their pictures in the paper and on the Internet and TV.
Looking at me, you'd never guess I grew up in this crazy theater community.
"Jessie! You're wearing a dress!" Susie, one of the theater school students, blurts this out in front of everyone.
"I know," Bits says. "I had to drag her to the mall to buy one. She didn't even own one."
"Oh, my god! And are those heels?" Susie's already high-pitched voice rises in a squeal.
Yes, and they are uncomfortable in the extreme. I slip out of them and in one swift move, I've kicked them into a corner by the stairs.
"Oh, there's the news crew that was at graduation," Bits says. "You should have heard Jessie's speech!" She sounds as proud as if she was my mother not my cousin.
"Of course you were valedictorian!" Susie says. "You are like the smartest person I have ever known."
"It was sweet," Bits says. "She said that she loved the theater and I quote, 'As much as I love my crazy black father and itsy-bitsy white mother!' The audience roared. Especially when she made Una and Mark stand up and take a bow. They loved it, of course."
"I made you stand up and take a bow, too," I remind her.
"And she loved it, didn't she?" Susie chirps. She and Bits are friends but they are also constant competitors for roles.
"How come you're not going to college?" Susie's mother, Trish, has joined us. "I heard you got several scholarship offers."
"I'm not ready for college yet. At least, not going away to school. And the University of Minnesota would be ... I don't know ... like continuing at the Lab School."
"I can see that," Trish says. "So, what are you going to do?"
"I'm not sure," I say, although I do have a plan. "I want to really focus here and see if I can find my strengths in the theater."
This is true, but it sounds kind of gaggy. It's also the scary part. I mean, what if I have no place in the theater?
Susie and her mom go back inside.
My mom and dad are over talking to the reporter, who is eyeing me — probably to get a picture — so I duck behind one of the maple trees (a small, decorative tree that doesn't hide me, it just makes me look like an idiot).
David comes out with a big mug of café au lait for me. It's topped with whipped cream and fresh-shaved chocolate. My favorite.
"Congratulations, kid!" He gives me a hug. "I'm next."
"If you're lucky!"
"I wish I were graduating with you today," Bits says, more than a touch of wistfulness in her voice. She would have loved all this hoopla directed at her. But her mother, Loretta (my aunt and a religious fanatic of the worst kind) pulled her out of the university Lab School a year ago. In order to prepare for the end of the world. Can you believe that? Bits had to finish high school online.
"We'll celebrate when you turn eighteen," I promise.
It's amazing really. Loretta (who I stopped calling Aunt Loretta a long time ago) tried to pull her out of the theater school, too, but Mom and Bits's dad, Lee, intervened. Lee's had a lot more control over what happens to Bits since the divorce, I've noticed. And that's a good thing! It's too bad Bits can't live with him. He's a drummer and on the road too much with the band. That would be Auntie Ellie's band (Auntie Ellie, who is not my real aunt, but my mom's best friend from forever and who I keep calling Auntie because she seems way more like family to me than nutcase Loretta does. I'm just saying.)
Maybe after Bits turns eighteen she can move in with us. You know, for those three days before the world ends.
I sure hope Loretta's insanity is not hereditary.
"Where's my café au lait?" Bits asks David, who rushes off to get her a cup. It cracks me up the way she rules that boy.
My mom signals me, so I set the cup down and drag Bits with me to talk to the reporters. My motto: if you have to talk to them, at the very least, CONFUSE them. Not all that hard to do, considering I'm nearly as tall as my dad, though not as dark, of course. Then Mom and Bits are a foot shorter and look like twins. Then there's Bartle, who is the same color as my dad (his uncle) but six feet three inches tall. Here he comes and, did I mention? He's in drag.
"And here we have the graduate herself, Jessie Jasper Lewis. Any regrets that you've chosen to stay here at the theatre school instead of accepting one of the scholarships you were offered?" the reporter asks, jamming the microphone in my face.
"No regrets," I answer, a surge of happiness washing over me. The camera guy comes in for a close-up. It hits me all of a sudden — I'm through with high school! I don't have to go on to college just yet. "How could I have regrets?"
I can feel the grin spreading over my face. "I'm the luckiest girl in the world to have parents who love me, love each other, and love the theater — not necessarily in that order — as much as I do."
"That's a wrap," the reporter says. "Nice line."
I turn to hug my parents, but they've already started back to the stage door. Mom and Bits have their heads together as usual. My dad is talking to Brad, who's appeared out of nowhere.
The party is my graduation present from Edward, Lydia, and David. Of course my parents contributed. And Auntie Ellie's band is playing. Normally we'd have a more personal party at our house, but the theater is bigger and it's got a catering kitchen. I can't believe how many people showed up. The only students missing are the ones that are also graduating today. That's only a handful. Most of the theater school kids are younger, like me.
The food is incredible. We stuff our faces.
And then we stuff our faces some more.
David keeps bringing me things to try. "Your favorite," he says, handing me his special deviled eggs.
Bartle grabs one in each hand, shoveling them in his enormous mouth in two quick bites. "What do you put in these ...?"
"Do not try to speak until you've swallowed those," I say, reaching for the last egg on the plate. "You are so gross. Why do you do that?"
Bartle says something else, but it's impossible to know what. He swallows. Tries again.
"No, you are not going to blame your lack of manners on your mother kicking you out!" I whack him on the arm with the plate. "That was three years ago!"
David has returned with another platter, larger this time, featuring his fabulous paté and slices of baguette. He grabs the empty plate from me before I can hit Bartle again.
Bartle swallows, and manages to say while David is still within hearing, "This is incredible. Are you sure that boy isn't gay?"
"Yes," I say. "He's NOT gay."
"He's NOT," Bits adds, slathering another piece of baguette with paté.
"I'm not," David throws this back over his shoulder. "If I were, I would walk like THIS." He mimics Bartle's walk all the way back to the stage door.
Bartle laughs, twirls the feather boa that's hanging around his neck, throwing it over his shoulder like an imitation of Vanessa Redgrave playing Isadora Duncan. (I love that movie!) His mother (my dad's only sister and my other aunt — Mary) was so stupid to kick him out when he told her he was gay. What is wrong with adults sometimes?
"Where's Tim?" I ask, realizing I haven't seen him anywhere. Tim Chang and Bartle are inseparable. They're best friends. At first I thought they were, you know, together. But they're not.
"Had to work. He's coming over afterward. He and the other girrrrrrls."
David comes back out with a platter of rib tips.
"Would you go back in and get us some of that fresh limeade?" I shamelessly beg, while licking BBQ sauce off my fingers.
David stands there. I know that look. He's searching for a comeback. Stubbornly searching.
Bits smiles up at him. "Please?"
And off he runs.
"Shameless," I say.
Bartle, assuming I'm talking about him, says, "I am NOT!"
Bartle goes off with the empty platter and the rest of our trash. Bits turns to me and says, "What did you mean when you told Susie's mom you wanted to 'find your strength in the theater'? I mean, what are you going to do?"
"Yeah," she says, flipping her head around so her curls bounce like they've got springs in them. How does her hair do that?
"You know, that's different from what you've been doing?" She goes back to gnawing on the last rib tip.
And just like that all my happiness and excitement (and relief) at being done with school drops away.
One minute I'm flying high. The next I'm totally crashed.
Because, honestly, even though I have a plan for what classes to take and all that, I don't really know the answer to her question.
And I see a year, two years, of nothing but the usual coming at me. Classes in the theater school that I've taken over and over and over with — I hate to admit it but it is oh, too true — little success. Running lines with my parents and Bits. Struggling like the enormous klutz I am with yet another movement class.
I meant it when I said I don't want to go away to college. Not yet.
But, oh, I don't want this year at the theater to be the same as last year or the year before or the year before that.
"Something exciting, please ..." The words say themselves.
"Huh?" Bits is looking for a place to dump the rib bone now that our human garbage can is gone.
"You said ..." She pauses, waving the rib bone. "You said something ... exciting?"
"I said that out loud?" I laugh.
Geez, what a dumb conversation. "I did say that." I can't help but laugh. "It's true — I do! I want something EXCITING to happen! Something completely different."
"Jessie," Bits says, her voice lowering. "You hate change."
She's right, of course. I am notorious for hating change.
"Aren't you bored with everything being exactly the same?" I push it.
"No," she says. "No. I love it here. I hated high school, but I love the theater school."
"Yeah, yeah. But don't you get tired of it?" What is wrong with me?
"The only thing different I want from this year," she says, "is I want to get at least one really good part. Not school shows. On the main stage. So I have that to take with me to New York."
"Well, I'm not going to New York," I say, taking the rib bone from her and walking over to the trash can. Geez. "And I don't want any parts, good or not. And I do want to be right here, at the theater."
"So I want something different to happen ..."
A little voice in my head is saying SHUT UP! but for some reason I insist on ignoring it. "Something exciting ..."
Excerpted from Drama Queens in the House by Julie Williams. Copyright © 2014 Julie Williams. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Luckiest Girl in the World,
Something Exciting, Please ...,
Of COURSE My Dad is Gay,
All the World's a Stage,
When the Theater Goes Dark,
Or I'll Blow Your House Down,
Getting Her Groove Back,
Take It To the Streets,
An Empty House,
He's Not My Adorable Professor,
You're Not Going to Like This,
Worse Than Mail Fraud, But Not a Felony,
All the Men and Women Merely Players,
To Play or Not to Play ...,
To Paint or Not to Paint ...,
It's a Slumber Party,
Let the Jumble Rumble,
Sinful Times Seven,
Their Exits and Their Entrances,
Celebration of Sixteen,
At the Altar of the JUMBLE (Players),
The Directing Class That Wasn't,
Una's Elite (Not!),
I'm Not Your ... Anything,
What It Comes Down To,
Mom's Opening Night,
Punishment or Bonding With Mom,
To Salon or Not To Salon,
More Like the Eskimos,
And One May In His Time Play Many Parts,
Pleasing the Masses,
Is THIS the End of the World?,
If You're Clumsy, Beat the Drum,
Raised on Theater Stories,
You Win Some, You Lose Some,
Just Breathe ...,
Where We Live,
All Hallow's Eve and a Hurricane,
Dancing in the Dark,
Jessie Jumble, Assistant Director,
My Own Private Poll,
Jessie Jumble, Movement Consultant (Not!),
Oh My God, Oh My God, Oh My God,
When in Doubt, Distress It ...,
Jessie Jumble Joins in,
A Jumbled Up Thanksgiving,
Tedious, Tedious Tech,
The Ghost of Christmas Present,
Just in Case We Didn't Get the Message,
Making It a Family Thang ...,
Doing the Right Thing,
The Writing Workshop That DOESN'T End,
A Sideways Celebration,
The Heartbeat of the Dance,
Bringing It Home,
When the World Begins Again,
The End of the World,