DVD popped in place, I settle in to watch Liza with a Z, Liza Minnelli’s 1972 television special, choreographed by Bob Fosse. The only thing better than sexy Bob Fosse choreography--Cabaret, Chicago—is Liza Minnelli dancing it. The competition to be a back-up dancer on this show must have been fierce.
When I was twelve, I took tap at the mall down the street. Modern dance in high school and college. Ballet in my twenties. African dance in my thirties—my big brother taught the class. A brief fling with tango in in my fifties and fox trot in my sixties. Sometimes in yoga, I daydream I’m striking a pose in the chorus line of a Broadway show.
When Liza talks to the audience between songs, she sounds so much like her mother I expect her to start calling for Auntie Em. A Dorothy-esque expression flashes across her face, and gives me the gushy feeling of girl, I knew your mama back she was younger than you. This makes me weepy, like when Uncle Al tells me I look like Mama. "The spittin' image of Catherine," he says.
Liza springs across the stage, singing, dancing, without ever losing her breath. And I want to leap up and get to my writing, because she makes it seem like everything’s possible, if I’m willing to work my butt off. But I can’t get to my writing just yet, because I’m mesmerized, high on the smells of grease paint and freshly popped popcorn.
Liza’s changed out of a red spangly mini-dress into black knickers and tights, straight out of Charles Dickens. It’s a weird outfit, but hey, it was the seventies, and she pulls it off. Her expression softens, her eyes go misty. Wow, the acting chops. How she captures a mood in a fleeting glance, rearranging the molecules in her face. She oozes into a ballad about homesickness, low and wistful. I snuggle under my blankey and grab a fistful of popcorn.
The words “my mammy” drip from Liza’s tongue.
What the —?
No. She. Didn’t.
A sucker punch.
I’ve got no breath for the obscenities I want to scream.
Liza Minnelli—New York City, Hollywood—waxing on about the sun shining on her mammy in alabammy.
I need to smash the television, but I’m seized up.
The song’s tempo speeds toward conclusion. Liza drops to one knee, belting out the final chords, arms spread wide. “… my ma - a- me-ee!” I’m seeing Liza Minnelli in black knickers. I’m feeling Al Jolson in blackface.
She looks right into the camera, right at me, a more direct and sustaining look than my own mama ever gave me. The look says, yeah, little colored gal, you forgot your place. And the look, and the spread arms, and the joy in her voice are shrieking.
My only place is being some white lady’s mammy.
No. Wait. This isn’t personal. My thoughts are whirring. My Pomona-College-trained analytical mind begins to sort things out. Right, she’s not deliberately trying to obliterate my feelings. Her goal is simply entertainment. She’s entertaining the world. But that makes it worse, because I’m not included in her world, a world in which alabammy sounds like a cartoon gunshot, instead of a real one.
There’s a thunderous ovation for Liza. My fist sags open, and the popcorn falls through my fingers.