A Mother's Day Tale
Joan Emily Johnston Cray was born July 20th 1935 and she passed away suddenly May 9th 2003 completely unexpected, of a cerebral hemorrhage at her home in Kinston, North Carolina.
As Joan experienced her final moments, I was heading into my opening night performance as the “Phantom” half a world away on Maui. The Yeston / Kopit rendition of “Phantom” is based on the classic novel “Phantom of the Opera” by Gaston Leroux. On Maui, the musical, directed by John Langs, would be the biggest and most successful stage production ever mounted. The night before, Joan left a message on my cell phone voicemail telling me to “break a leg” and that she loved me. These would be the last words I ever heard my mother Joan speak to me.
The play tells a story that revolves around a mother’s love for her son, and his obsession with a women (Christine – played by Debra Lynn)
...her voice and beauty reminds him of his mother, and his transcendence to his mother through his own death…
Erik is born with extreme facial deformity, His mother does not see it. She teaches him to see his inner beauty” Your mother thought your face was absolutely and flawlessly beautiful” Carriere says to Erik in the second act.
Joan was born and raised in Belhaven; a small river community in eastern North Carolina, the daughter of Lester and Dorothy Johnston.
Her father owned the local grocery business and her mother the toys and gifts store. She grew up believing her family owned the town. Her Uncle Bill was the Barber, Uncle Russell the Post Master, and her Father was also the Fire Chief .She was the Valedictorian of her High School Class, and everyone remembers her most infectious laugh. When she was three she was sent a grass skirt and Lei from her uncle Bob stationed at Pearl Harbor, HI.
From that time she dreamed of a trip to Hawaii.
She was a Cub Scout den mother, a Tupperware Manager, when it was cool, managed my father’s photography studio, was a great photographer herself, and worked for 18 years as the credit manager of Brody’s Department Store. She loved to travel, loved lighthouses and the Outer Banks of her native state of North Carolina. Joan was dedicated to her family and children. She was a very loyal friend. Kinston was her home for over 45 years.
Joan was very ill in Duke Hospital at the time of my birth. I was premature and doctors thought they could lose us both. My Father and Grandparents were told it was very likely I would be born without fully developed lungs. Anyone witness to my performance of the “Phantom” on Maui some 40 years later, knows that the doctors were wrong about my prognosis.
During the six performances the weekend of Phantom, I wore several masks. One of the masks; a “Death Mask” was fashioned after an unusual looking seashell given to me by an artist friend who found it on a Maui beach.
The story behind the
Death Mask is prophetic; it was the last mask to be completed and the
first time it was worn was during the final dress rehearsal, the day Joan
had suddenly taken ill.
I believe while I was giving the performances of my life “the light of my
mother’s soul” was in my heart and in the hearts of everyone in the
theatre that Mother’s Day weekend.
Maui entertainment critic Paul Janes-Brown wrote in the Maui News: “As the Phantom, Richard Cray tests the thesaurus to find enough superlative adjectives to describe the excellence of his work. He is a bona fide star”.
While I was on Maui; my brother Bob was in Kinston busy making decisions for our mother Joan, kept alive on life support for two days, so a surgical team could harvest her organs for transplant, according to her wishes if anything ever happened to her. While Joan’s body was busy back in Kinston; her spirit was with us in the Castle Theatre.
Joan’s untimely passing liberated her body allowing her spirit to bear witness to Phantom so far away. In Act two, Carriere played by Broadway actor Randl Ask, says to Erik,
you the light of the soul of
your mother has shown”.
Soon after Joan’s passing, her liver and both of her kidneys were successfully transplanted. Around Christmas, Bob and I were contacted, by letter, from the wife of the man receiving her liver. She told how her husband had been given a second chance at life, was enjoying time with his two children and two grandchildren. He was so near death his own daughter gave him 55% of her liver on May 7 so he could live for four more days, to receive Joan’s gift on May 11, Mother’s Day, 2003.
Last Mother’s Day
weekend, my mother, Joan Johnston Cray, shared her humanity with thousand
of people. Many hearts and souls were lifted in the Maui Arts and Cultural
Center by the presence of her spirit, through her life time of loving and
nurturing me into a world class artist and more importantly into a
compassionate loving human being.
Through her sacrifices
and nurturing I became a man, last Mother’s Day. Joan shared her humanity
with thousands on Maui and profoundly changed the lives of the families
she gifted with new light (life).
If you ever wonder
what to give your Mom for Mother’s day, Mom’s love it when you write to
them. My Mom saved every letter and card I ever wrote to her. Including
the very first note: “Dear Mom, I love you very much, and I would like to
thank you in advance for anything I might get for Christmas”.
While at home in Kinston
this past year I was going through the house and found hundreds of
archives full of event notices, photos, letters, cards, programs and news
articles. Among these precious moments of experience was a letter that
recalled one special time in our life: The letter mused about my being at
the North Carolina School of the Arts, when I called Mom one week and told
her “I wanted to see an Opera, I’d never seen one” When she learned the
New York City Opera was soon to perform the “Barber of Seville” at the
Kennedy Center in Washington, she didn’t think twice, grabbed me from
school and we both headed to DC for my first Opera. My premiere memory of
this experience was hearing Samuel Ramey, now considered to be one of the
greatest singers of the century. What an inspiration! I was a senior in
High School. Thanks Mom.
In the final moments of ”Phantom” Erik dies in Christine’s arms, as he takes his last breath, Belladova, his mother as a young women, walks center stage to meet Erik as a young boy.
She reaches out and slowly removes his mask, and we see the face of a beautiful young boy. The audience is able to see his face as she saw it, without flaw and radiating inner beauty.
At the time of Joan’s passing, I was living with every cell of my being, and being everything she ever wanted for me. It somehow made it all make sense…
Mom, thank you for nurturing our inner beauty, we love you, Happy Mother’s Day. - "You Are Music"
Dickie and Bobby
Credits: Darkness to Light, The Gold Mask is the mask of the fully realized man, The Mask of Light, or the Sun Mask; Erik wears this mask for his death scene, and for the Second Act Aria” My Mother Bore Me” based on a William Blake Poem. Masks designed and crafted by Marianna Rydvald. Young Erik's mask designed by Lee Michael Walczuk. Special Thanks and gratitude to David Johnston, Artistic Director - Maui Academy of Performing Arts, Steven Haines, Debra Lynn, Jerry Eiting, John Langs, Will Hastings, Marsha Kelly, Vanessa, Dottee & Gerald Barron, Paul & Liz Janes-Brown. Web page design by Gregory Peter Panos