Surviving R. Kelly and the Children’s Theater Company
After six weeks in quarantine, I had little to watch so I clicked through Netflix documentaries and hit SURVIVING R. KELLY.
It’s powerful — engrossing and horrifying; overwhelming and addictive. I binge-watched the first six episodes in one afternoon, the entire time my heart barely beat. As the women’s stories piled up, they piled up on top of me. My childhood was in theater, not music, but the stories were all too familiar. I knew all about life with a predator.
Those years are far behind me now. My encounters went back to my teenage years in the 1970’s, the age of polyester and bell bottoms. That’s when as a young brown girl, I was accepted into a school that was part of a nationally recognized, professional theater for children.
I wasn’t new to the stage when I started. By junior high I had been in community theater productions and had studied for a year at another drama school. Still, when I arrived I couldn’t help but feel bigger, better – special. It was intoxicating. Until then I had been studying and performing in store-front theaters and converted community churches. The theater and school were housed in a beautiful, modern, gleaming building with shining chrome elevators and maroon carpets that matched the seats in the auditorium. A specially built dance studio was walled with mirrors. We took improvisation and acting lessons in a black box rehearsal room down the hall. There was even a choir room with a grand piano and square parquet floors. The theater productions were magic too. I still remember being mesmerized watching my first lavish production at five years old. It was like seeing a Disney movie for the first time when all you had at home were Mickey Mouse reruns on a nine-inch black and white TV. So, at the age of thirteen, as a “First Year” I couldn’t help but believe that I had arrived.
In addition to performance skills, we learned the technical side of production. Even this view did nothing to diminish the magic. All the students wanted to be in a main stage production. We had great hopes that we could be picked because we had a special in. Some of the company actors were our teachers. They nurtured and trained us and monitored our progress. One of these was the Artistic Director, John Donahue.
Some people are strange. Some people are charismatic, and some people have an uncanny ability to be both. That was John. He was always intense when he looked at you or spoke. Even when he was lost in thought. He seemed simultaneously present and not present. His non-presence drew us in. We wanted that far off look to turn back and for his spotlight to beam down on us. When he did, we hung on his every word and bathed in the heat of that light.
Remembering how good it felt, I understood what the women in R. Kelly’s orbit described. I know what it feels like to be young and have someone you admire –that everyone treats like a God – turn that gaze on you. After all, our other teachers were the first to tell us how lucky we were because our Artistic Director took the time to work with first-year students. We were taught to admire him, but it would not have mattered. Anyone with even the slightest bit of need or insecurity would have been drawn in. We all wanted to be ushered into his universe.
I rose quickly in my classes and I was praised often by John as one of the students who really got IT. IT was what he called the universal energy we tapped into during the flow of improvisation. It was an indescribable something: John’s version of universal creativity or God. Subtly we progressed from mere acting skills to listening to the music of the heavens — a song John could already hear. He promised to take us there too, if only we could listen hard enough. So week after week, month after month, we sat in our leotards and sweatpants while he groomed us. We stretched our bodies and strained our minds and tried to hear IT too.
As with all predators, however, he had another side. Having met other sociopaths since then, I now understand that the intensity of John’s wide-open stare was not magic. It was his insanity.
I could not name it then. I was too young and had no one to help me understand. Now I realize that I always felt discomfort around John, even while craving his attention. It was the feeling that rises in the gut when red flags start flying. The feeling an insect might have the moment it realizes that the dark cloud moving in is a big boot… and it’s preparing to crush you.
It’s impossible to describe the feelings of shock and anger I felt the first time a fellow student confided in me. He was a younger boy in my class who still had enough baby fat to look like a cherub. He was a choir boy, literally. A talented soprano in a local boys’ choir who was also stage-worthy and ready for molding.
My friend came to me with a look of fear and confusion. He told me John was coming to the locker room after dance classes to stare at the boys while they changed and showered. It was happening regularly, even on the days he did not teach. My friend was afraid and wanted help. He was uncomfortable with John’s attention and stares but when he talked to the other boys, they brushed it off. This confused him even more. Apparently, Donahue had been hunting in the showers for years. Other boys said my friend shouldn’t worry about it and, most importantly, not to complain. John was our leader. He was the great director that the entire institution relied upon. No one wanted to confront him. They were afraid of him and equally of losing their chance in the limelight, so they urged my friend not to rock the boat.
To be clear, none of this was about John being gay. Like most theaters, the environment was liberal, even for the mid-seventies. We understood that any homophobia should be left at home. But back then it wasn’t the norm to be out or to talk about your gay partner. This worked to John’s advantage. It allowed him and everyone else to dismiss any concerns that were raised as our homophobia. In reality, I cannot remember a single student or teacher who was uncomfortable or offended by the fact that John was gay. The problem was pedophilia.
Added to this confusion were the rumors. As I soon discovered, there were plenty of them. Shortly after my conversation with the young choir boy, I tried to talk to my best friend about it. She was five years older and had plugged into the scene quickly. At the time, we were preparing to run costumes for a new play that was just about to open. That afternoon, during a tech rehearsal, we sat in the cushy seats of the main floor of the theater and talked for nearly an hour. When I told her what was happening, she was not a bit surprised. She knew all about it. I could see from the slight clench in her jaw it upset her too. At first, this made me think she could help us. I was wrong.
The noise of the rehearsal gave us privacy while debated the fate of our young friend. It quickly became clear that my best friend had already thought this through. Between note taking for our costume cues, she explained why nothing could be done. She said it was pointless to say anything or to raise a fuss because everyone already knew. It would not help. Worse, she heard that John had been arrested several times and always got out of jail within an hour. She explained that he was well known to the cops and even the press, but the newspapers kept silent about it. This terrified me. I felt real fear when she described how John avoided accountability or punishment. Whether the rumors of his arrest were true or not, we believed them. It was ominous. In my mind I could feel that dark cloud hover over us. I realized that the clench in her jaw was as much a sign of her determination to silence me as it was concern for our friends. She even described an op-ed cartoon that ran in the paper years before with the caption: “I’ve been thinking about the Children’s Theater Company… and killer bees”. At this point, my chest tightened and the fear that gripped me never completely subsided. We agreed it summed up our situation perfectly.
If what my best friend had told me was true, then John was not only powerful within the institution he created, he was more powerful than the agencies designed to protect us. This meant that we had no power at all. I couldn’t protect my friend the choir boy. I couldn’t even protect myself. I was assured that if I did say anything I wouldn’t just be kicked out of the school. John would reach his enormously powerful hand into the surrounding theater community and I would be blacklisted for life. I would never be able to work in any theater ever again. My friend said it happened to anyone who had ever spoken up and I believed her. So, for the next year and a half, I kept my mouth shut. There were conversations with other students, but all it did was reinforce the conviction that there was nothing we could do. We simultaneously worshiped at John’s alter, sought his attention and felt revulsion as we watched him head into the boy’s locker room. I continued to climb the ladder, hoping to get to that main stage. Meanwhile, I watched one friend after another taken under his wing, then fall apart.
Before long, the pattern to John’s catch and release was clear. It started with the showers, where my male classmates noted that a boy was getting more attention from John. Next, he received more attention and praise in class. Soon John announced that his new favorite found that IT and the boy began to change. They didn’t speak as often or look me in the eye. When they did, there was a vacancy in their eyes not unlike John’s. Their bodies were present, but they seemed to be looking right through me. I watched them change physically as well. One after the other, as my friends were snatched into John’s orbit, they began to hold their bodies differently. They walked and talked differently. I thought they were emulating him, but in hindsight I think there was more to it. Like many kids who experience incest, my friends had no help, nowhere to go and no one to listen or intervene. So, they did what molested children often do: they left their bodies, and then their minds far behind.
I still ache to think about the part I played in this drama. My outrage grew, but I never said anything to anyone in authority. I did encourage a couple of friends to talk to their parents, but even this was pointless. Plenty of stories circulated about boys whose parents refused to listen or believe them. They enjoyed the prestige of their theatrically gifted children’s position too much.
By the next summer, it was easy to spot John’s next victim. When a new student appeared, my first thought was that he was astonishingly mature and good looking for fourteen. My second thought: “John is going to go after him.” And he did. By the end of the summer session that beautiful young man had been through the cycle and tossed out of John’s orbit. He left broken… but I returned.
It was now the beginning of my third year in the program, the equivalent of being a senior in high school. We were the big kids on campus and younger kids looked up to us. We were old beyond our years, mature and jaded, talented and skilled and ready for doors to open. But I did not feel so accomplished.
I had learned more, but as I moved from class to class, I felt so much less.
It was exactly that strange, inexplicable emptiness I felt that day, even before I saw him. I was high up on the fourth floor of the theater school sitting next to a tall window, looking down at the deep green of a late summer lawn below. The sun was bright, which made the grass look even richer against the stark white of the modern buildings.
It took me a moment to recognize him at first. His sandy blond hair was all I could see above his feet as he made his way along that sidewalk, head down. At first, all I recognized was that particular walk. It was John’s walk, but I knew it wasn’t him. This boy was a couple of years older now. He was taller and thinner. The longer length of his bell bottoms flapped in the wind as he made his way toward the building to a door three floors below me.
Suddenly it hit me: it was the choir boy. The odd way he moved his hips told me everything I needed to know. All at once I saw the whole story. My friend, the one who had complained the most, had given in. I could see it unfold in my mind like mirrors shattering in a movie montage. Then a sickness came over me. That tightness in my chest returned and something cracked inside me. I felt heartbroken and outraged and I knew that I could not pretend anymore. I grabbed my big bag of books, tights and dance shoes, uncrossed my legs and stood up.
I stood up and walked out.
It was the only thing I could do — even if I were blacklisted, even if I lost my chance on the main stage, the price was too high. I could not go on pretending that my friends were not being destroyed.
One after the other, I had watched too many kids I cared about rise on a tide of toxic attention and then fall from grace, their soul in ruins. In truth, it wasn’t just the boys this was happening to. Straight teachers preyed just as eagerly on female students. They fared no better. I had seen several girls go crazy as they were used, abused and thrown away only to be replaced by younger ones. I walked to the elevator and left the building with all their faces swirling in my head.
The next day I returned, but announced that I was leaving at the end of the week. I stuck around hoping such a dramatic gesture would make someone listen and do something. Instead, I watched everyone – students, staff and faculty – turn their backs and walk away. The ranks closed so quickly and so totally. Even though I expected it, I was stunned. Only one teacher spoke to me again. When he asked what was wrong, I told him exactly why I was leaving. He looked so sincere when he apologized and explained that there was nothing he could do. Then he too walked off. I watched the door close behind him as he went to teach another acting class. With one final whoosh, it locked me out of the life I had dreamed of as well.
As with R. Kelly, it took years for John Donahue to finally be arrested and convicted. I was in California when I heard about it. My grandmother sent me a few articles from the local paper about the trial. At least ten years had passed by then but still, I couldn’t read them. It was too traumatic. I remember shaking so hard that the clippings fell out of my hands and onto my living room floor. This is one reason I found the R. KELLY documentary so compelling. It gave voice to many who were damaged simply by being in his orbit.
You don’t have to be attacked to be hurt by a predator. Like the family of an alcoholic, the damage overflows onto everyone.
Have you ever walked into a room and felt the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Or felt the air two minutes before the fight breaks out? You feel the danger all around you. If it continues, if no one stops it or stands up when it is happening, that energy becomes toxic. Whether in a family, a theater, a sports club or a band, it affects everyone. The glamour of fame may cover it up for a while, but the time spent takes its toll. That toxic stench soaks into your skin and heart like the stinky brown film in a house whose owner has been chain smoking for decades. I can take a lifetime to recover. It’s the insanity of seeing someone hurt others with impunity that eats away at your soul. Watching the R. Kelly episodes, I could not help but wonder: Why don’t we take better care of our children?
There was R. Kelly and John Donahue, but there was also Jerry Sandusky, Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein. Now Epstein’s partner Ghislaine Maxwell is back in the news. All used their power, fame and position to prey upon their young, vulnerable victims. In every case, they were surrounded by a community in collusion who didn’t just ignore, but participated in these crimes. In a million different ways, staff, family, friends and colleagues helped them. Some with silence or denial. Others refused to discuss it or even participated. They served as security and scouts and kept victims’ hostage in Epstein and R. Kelly’s homes. They silenced rumors about Sandusky, ushered young girls into private rooms at Jeffrey Epstein’s mansion and called to set up women for “interviews” with Harvey Weinstein knowing he was waiting in his hotel room with only a robe on.
It takes a village to raise our children up… and a village to take us down.
But this is not the end of my story. Somewhere in the middle of binge-watching the second series, a new thought emerged. It rose up from deep within my memory and it took a while to jell. When it did, it was a revelation.
Right along with all my friends was the memory of my own encounter with the devil. As the women on my flat screen described the ways that they were lured in, I had just as many memories of the night I was assaulted by the man I knew and thought I could trust. I was only sixteen when I met him at another theater. I remembered how he waited until all our friends left the campfire one summer night. He got me stoned and offered more wine. Then he began to kiss and fondle me. I was surprised and flattered and totally inebriated. I never had any previous indication this twenty-five-year-old man was interested in me. When he first pulled me into his tent, I was very tired and drunk. Still, I had the sense to say no and I did, repeatedly. He pushed and begged until finally I gave in. I did not want to. Giving in is not the same as saying yes. Plus I wanted to believe him when he said he liked me. I was a heavy brown girl. No one ever told me I was pretty or assured me I would be married some day.
The next morning when he promised to call, I believed him. When he didn’t and wanted nothing more to do with me, I was deeply ashamed. I tried to talk to my best friend, but she ignored me. That was the most devastating. This incident confirmed all my worst fears. It was true. I was a throw away. Not worth anyone’s care or concern. I crawled deeper inside myself. The next summer, when an old boyfriend of my mother’s offered me a ride and asked where I was going, I told him it was a Women Take Back the Night march. He looked at me, genuinely shocked, and asked: “Who would want to rape you?”
It has been decades since these events occurred. I have had plenty of time to work them through — as much as a person can, anyway. But not until now have I ever put the timeline together.
There are a million gifts that I believe SURVIVING R. KELLY with its depth and candor has given to survivors. For me, it comes down to this: I had always been ashamed because I believed I never stood up for myself. I never had a chance to defend the beautiful, talented, vibrant young woman I was. But now, for the first time in over forty years, I understand how brave I had been.
In that moment at the window, when I saw my friend and realized what had happened to him, I was enraged. This happened only a few weeks after I, too, had been assaulted. All these years later, the pieces fell together: some of that rage was for me.
Finally, I saw how strong I had been. I had walked away from that theater because all I could do to try and save my friend was refuse to participate anymore. For years afterward, I felt sad and guilty because I could not do more. Not for him and not for me.
Now, as I look back on the image of my sixteen-year old self reaching for her heavy bag and slinging it over her shoulder, I feel her strength. I stood up for my friends and in so doing, I stood up for myself. I stood up for our right to be safe and protected.
I love that girl.