While writing Essie’s Roses, I had an encounter with someone who wasn’t a reader. They couldn’t believe a story could do anything but provide entertainment and an escape. We absolutely read to be entertained, but I have seen firsthand how stories, particularly plays, can give someone a voice, understanding, and healing.
Early in my acting career I did a children’s theater tour across the country. We performed at high schools, local theaters, and special events. On one unusual occasion the production company booked one of our plays at a maximum security prison!
Before our trip and performance, the prison officials gave us so many instructions on what not to do, who not to look at, and what not to say—we were all nervous! They also said if the inmates—all men—didn’t like the play the prisoners would let us know. Not after—during our performance! They warned us we may not get to finish.
The play we performed had the theme of a teen keeping a painful secret: taking care of her alcoholic mother and the destruction keeping this secret brings to one’s life. Guess who played the alcoholic mother? Me.
We had a sparse set on a small platform, but we gave our performance as if we were on a grand stage. I was focused, but I couldn’t help waiting, during our first scene, for the snickers and catcalls to start. When I said my first few lines . . . nothing. In fact, we acted this play in complete silence from the audience. Not a cough. Not a snicker. Not a whisper.
I think inside all of us thought we stunk—until the play ended. I don’t even remember the audience clapping. After our stage manager signaled to one of the guards the play was over, they rushed us out of the performance space. Honestly, I was glad it was over. But I’ll never forget when I finally peeked at the audience, the look on those men’s faces. Men were crying. I couldn’t believe how quiet it was in that place.
Soon after, the director of the event pulled the cast aside to share how the play affected the prisoners, one in particular: a young man who was at this prison for several months. I don’t know why he was there, but the director told us he was a troubled young man who would not speak. He wouldn’t speak to anyone. Not one word. And no one could break through to him.
After our play ended, this young man ran up to his counselor with tears and said, "I know what’s wrong with me now. That was me. That was my family." He could never put it into words. He could never face it.
Stories have a way of reaching into our souls—if we let them. I’m humbled at the reaction to Essie’s Roses. What I love about writing and reading, is when we happen upon a story that has a way of quietly making us think.
The story of Essie’s Roses still speaks to me. Though it is set in a tumultuous period in our history, I believe our desire to be loved, have a purpose and live in freedom transcends across all generations. Throughout time these are the themes that stick with us. As a gift of living today we have the opportunity to not only learn from history but to do our part to change the pattern of wrong to right with love, empathy, and compassion.
The story of Essie’s Roses is a fictional account, but I believe in the journey of these four brave women. I believe in their love for each another and how that love can be deep, committed, redeemed, and restored.
Throughout the generations, in the midst of horror, there are and will always be individuals who rise up to do good. Those who rise to defend the helpless with words and actions, and to love and by their love change their world.
Thank you to all who continue to encourage me with your beautiful words regarding Essie’s Roses. I’m a firm believer everyone has a gift. Gifts that are not necessarily artistic are not any less beautiful or worthy of praise: a mother’s love, a father’s protection, a giving heart, the gift of speaking a kind word or needed wisdom to someone at just the right moment. Those gifts and many others are just as worthy of applause.
Ignite your gift with a step of faith and as you encouraged me, reach out to someone around you to offer them hope. Our nation needs an infusion of hope right now. Share your smile, hold the door open for someone, remind a loved one how valuable they are, and know yourself how valuable you are to those around you. Most of all, determine to never allow love and compassion to be in short supply.
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Michelle Muriel is the award-winning, bestselling author of ESSIE'S ROSES. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts, magna cum laude, and after graduating, she worked as a professional actress, a member of Actors’ Equity and The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists for almost twenty years, doing theater, voice-over, and commercial work. She is also a songwriter and musician. Michelle lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and two quirky Border collies. She first developed ESSIE'S ROSES as a screenplay. This is her debut novel. She is currently at work on her second.