While some knew him as Jonah and others as Mac, we all loved and respected him. And we miss him dearly.

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The Clown Mensch of White Plains (Part Two)

I promised a part two to this piece and am finally getting around to it. It’s an important addition to the story: the “part two” that kicked in the day after Jonah died.

While Jonah was alive, I didn’t really “get” PGT. I’d definitely grown to love it, but that was mostly because: a) the shows became very moving and inspiring; and, b) Jonah and Aiden loved the place so very much. But it wasn’t until Jonah died that I learned just how remarkable a community PGT is.

In the days following Jonah’s death, as well as the day of his funeral, the four of us stayed close together. In Buffalo (at the hospital, the police station, and on campus) and back home, we rarely left each others’ sides. But once the seven days of shiva began, it was “every man for himself.” So many people came by to spend time with us that there were often lines right out the front door. By necessity (and for personal survival) we took up positions in four different spots throughout our home, to divide and conquer the overwhelming number of friends and acquaintances paying condolence calls. Katie and Aiden sequestered themselves in their bedrooms, and we were extremely sensitive as to who got through to see them.

On Friday evening, March 6th, the day after Jonah died, we received a phone call from the Abusches asking if it’d be okay to come get Aiden and bring him to their house to spend time with his PGT community. Thus began PGT’s strategy of caring for the youngest Dreskin. Prior to the funeral, Aiden spent many hours with his second family, absorbing their love and their strength so that he might better face the days ahead. During shiva, there were usually one or more PGT’ers in his room with him. And late each afternoon, a PGT parent would drive over to take Aiden to his rehearsal, which he’d decided was an important component of his grieving for Jonah and the beginning of his healing. Needless to say, we were grateful that such a support-system was in place for a 15-year old kid who loved his family but didn’t necessarily feel that we were going to be the sole source of his recovery from the greatest loss and sadness he’d ever faced.

For weeks after, while Ellen and I struggled just to get up each morning, a car would appear in the afternoon to transport Aiden to his next rehearsal, faithfully depositing him back each evening (though sometimes considerably later than the end of rehearsal, as additional invitations to spend time with Aiden supplemented the outpouring of support from his PGT community).

Bulletin Board @ PGT Summer 2009

Bulletin Board @ PGT
Summer 2009

In August 2009, PGT, having returned to Bet Am Shalom Synagogue for its annual summer theater program, invited the Dreskins to stop by. We thought we were coming over to see a bulletin board on which photographs of Jonah’s years in PGT had been posted. But then we were invited into another space where the entire camp had been assembled. For the next half-hour or so, they shared songs especially selected and prepared for this moment. Included was a personal composition by PGT’er Ben Zacharia, reflecting on his own feelings regarding the loss of his friend Jonah. Rachel Berger, Jonah’s longtime partner in show after show at PGT, spoke about Jonah as having been everyone’s big brother. And then the kids sang a song that, in a million years, I’d never have found if I’d been searching for one to honor Jonah’s memory. But they did. It was an old song, recorded by The Mamas and the Papas in 1969, called “Make Your Own Kind of Music.”

Nobody can tell ya
There’s only one song worth singin’.
They may try and sell ya,
‘Cause it hangs them up to see someone like you.

But you’ve gotta make your own kind of music,
Sing your own special song,
Make your own kind of music,
Even if nobody else sings along.

You’re gonna be knowin’
The loneliest kind of lonely.
It may be rough goin’ —
Just to do your thing’s the hardest thing to do.

But you’ve gotta make your own kind of music,
Sing your own special song,
Make your own kind of music,
Even if nobody else sings along.

So if you cannot take my hand,
And if you must be goin’ I will understand.

You’ve gotta make your own kind of music,
Sing your own special song,
Make your own kind of music,
Even if nobody else sings along.

So many of these words fit Jonah perfectly. A kid who most definitely had his own song to sing. Misunderstood by some, cherished by so many others. He sang his song to the end, and left us an exquisite melody to treasure long after he had gone.

On January 2, 2010, after Aiden finished appearing in The Wiz and while he was in rehearsal for 13, Play Group Theatre celebrated its 15th anniversary, which they happened to do in their new digs at One North Broadway (“NoBro”) in White Plains. Participants from PGT past and present provided us with a retrospective presentation of pieces from many of the shows PGT has produced in the last decade and a half. Amidst their well-earned love-fest, the show stopped for a few moments to remember Jonah Maccabee Dreskin.

The Cast of "Hair" -- without Jonah -- PGT 15th Gala, January 2010

The Cast of “Hair” … without Jonah
PGT 15th Gala, January 2010

Jonah had spent countless hours with the PGT family throughout high school and, for some reason, he seems to have left a rather long-lasting impression there. The tribute involved the cast of Hair, Jonah’s last show with PGT, lining up across the stage and singing a bit of their music, pausing for an incredibly moving tribute by their director Jeff Downing, and concluding with fellow cast-member Aiden Dreskin, who got to play the invented role of Woof’s little brother to his real-life big brother, stepping forward to sing “Over the Rainbow,” one of Jonah’s ukulele favorites. It probably would have been better had Ellen, Katie and I not been sitting in the second row. I understand the cast had difficulty in rehearsal with the joyful acting that was called for in their song, “Aquarius,” and seeing Jonah’s family sobbing buckets during the performance itself couldn’t have been helping them. But oh how we loved what they did. Oh how we felt loved by what they did.

Aiden @ PGT's 15th Gala January 2010

Aiden @ PGT’s 15th Gala
January 2010

To see Aiden standing in the middle of his Hair hippies, with Jonah obviously missing, and all of them obviously missing him, and Aiden standing steady and strong as Jonah was remembered by Jeff, and then Aiden stepping downstage to sing Jonah’s song … how it touched my heart, warmed it, and advanced its healing. With so much that is right emerging from one of the world’s great wrongs, I understood more than ever the power and the beauty of the human experience … which asserts itself regardless of the pain any of us may be required to endure. As I watched my little boy sing, a slide of my bigger boy came up on the wall behind him. And from where I was sitting, it absolutely appeared as if Jonah was watching his little brother, and the grin on his face said it all. Jonah couldn’t have been prouder, and couldn’t have loved Aiden more.

Jeff’s words from that evening are unforgettable. They not only capture PGT’s love for Jonah, but they articulate why PGT is so very special to the actors and the families of the PGT community.

Tonight wouldn’t be complete without taking a moment to remember our student, our friend, our uniquely remarkable Jonah. I was lucky enough to be Jonah’s director for six of his nine shows at PGT … and to be part of his journey, onstage and off.

Before the final performance of Hair, keeping in line with a special PGT tradition, Jill, Steven, and I gathered together with this graduating class. I would like to share with you some of the things I said to Jonah before that very special show.

“Jonah, I remember your first show very well. [It was Lucky Stiff for those of you who may not know.] I remember teaching you how to walk on tempo to an eight-count, and I remember that it took a while. If someone had told me back then that you would one day be playing roles like Ben the Gardener in The Secret Garden, or the doctor in Grand Hotel, or the doctor in Marvin’s Room, I’m not sure I would have believed them. What I will remember most about you, Jonah, is your remarkable journey from a boy to one of the most dependable, engaging, and passionate young men I have ever worked with.”

Jill asked me to choreograph a few songs for Hair, which was wonderful because I got to work with these guys on their final show. I guess I worked them pretty hard. I’m not sure who it was, but someone came up with the phrase, “musical theatre boot camp” (apparently there are times when my choreography is physically demanding). Jonah was king of the boot camp. He was the fiercest, sweatiest, most fabulous monster of a hippie I have ever seen. He just danced his face off. I remember screaming to Jill during tech week, “Look at Jonah. LOOK AT HIM! He’s going to throw his arms right off his body!” I was so proud of him … to go from Lucky Stiff where he had trouble walking on a tempo, and to end up at Hair, choreographically leading the way … is just remarkable.

The cast of Hair was kind enough to make us a very special PGT yearbook from their graduating class. Here is some of what Jonah said to me. I should probably preface this by telling you that I have this issue with laziness … the issue being I don’t really like it when my kids are lazy. It did take Jonah some time to adjust to my “No Laziness” Policy.

Program page, PGT's 15th Gala January 2010

Program page, PGT’s 15th Gala
January 2010

“Dear Jeff: So I made it. Nine solid seasons of PGT, most of them under your direction, and I want you to know that I plan to spend the next 25 years being very, very lazy. It has definitely been amazing. I have learned so much about fearlessness and following impulses … that I don’t think I am ready to function in normal society again. I might scare a few people. But the two most important things you taught me are how to dance and that gay-bashing is not good. I am sad to be leaving such a loving community, but I am so glad I found it … even if I was about seven years late. I look forward to entering my future with the knowledge PGT has given me, and I cannot thank you enough. Sincerely, with a far from lazy hug … Jonah.”

Later that night, after the PGT Gala, about 2:30 in the morning, I couldn’t sleep. The tribute had moved me so deeply, I had to pen the following note to Jeff:

As I’ve said to Jill a bunch of times, there aren’t a lot of adults around who knew and cared (they didn’t necessarily go hand in hand) for Jonah. You and Jill gave Jonah precisely what he needed during his high school years – support and direction. I’m so grateful for all you’ve done.

Speaking with another of Jonah’s longtime PGT friends at the reception, I said, “You know, if I’d known that Jonah’s high school years were going to be the last of all his years, and I’d had to pick where I’d like him to best spend them, I couldn’t have done any better than PGT. He loved it here. He had such a wonderful time, and was able to grow up and become a better person inside these walls.”

“Inside these walls.” When I congratulated Jill on PGT’s arriving home to NoBro, I whispered to her, “But for me, PGT has always been home. You never needed any particular walls. Wherever you and Steven and Jeff and the kids were, that was home.”

Thank goodness, back in the ninth grade he chose PGT over the Trigonometry Club. Not that he would ever have volunteered to do more schoolwork in his free time, but the kid’s heart knew good people when it found them. There was no way PGT would get away from him without a fight.

Funny thing about PGT’s new home, “NoBro.” If Jonah had lived to hear about it, he’d have loved to roll up his sleeves (like his little brother did) and lend a whole lot of helping hands to get it ready for occupancy. Jill Abusch wrote, “I have been thinking so much about how he would have loved this whole thing – he would have been right in there, shlepping and painting and making us all laugh while we work to get it done. He would have loved this.”

In Jonah’s senior-year goodbye letter to PGT, he wrapped things up, writing …

I promise that someday, when I am a billionaire, I will buy PGT its very own theater.

And Jeff, in his January tribute, wrapped his own things up with these words …

Well, Jonah, your wish came true. We got our very own theater. I wish you were here to see it. But you will always be a part of it. Every cast that warms up in that new green room, which is dedicated to your memory, will look at your walls, inspired by your famous checkerboard hat … and we will remember you. We will remember those brilliant characters you created, the endless amount of laughter you gave us, and the one of a kind personality that will never be forgotten.

As Jonah walked off the stage of his incredible-but-far-too-brief journey, his friend Rachel Berger spoke about the last time he walked off a PGT stage:

My all-time most powerful, favorite memory of Jonah was the final moment in Hair, which was our final PGT moment all together. Jonah is always so strong, and always there to hug others. But in the final moments of Hair, he collapses. And I, who am often a mess, was there to comfort him for once. As he collapsed, I went over to him and hugged him. And he fell into my arms and we cried. Then we sang “Let the Sunshine In,” and we helped each other to our feet. Finally, we put our arms around each other and walked off the stage. This was my final PGT moment, and it makes perfect sense that it would be with Jonah. I am so lucky. It was the absolute perfect way to leave the stage. I will always cherish that moment — where we cried because of an ending, but sang to let the sun shine in. This moment was perfect then and it is perfect now. I wouldn’t have walked off the PGT stage with anything less.

It’s possible, I suppose, that Jonah Mac would have become “The Clown-Mensch” without PGT. But in my deepest soul, I know that just as Jonah gave everything he had to help make PGT a better second home for all of its young participants, PGT gave to Jonah gifts whose value is beyond measure. How lucky he was to have such giving, caring, supportive, challenging, loving, accepting people in his young life. I may not have truly understood PGT when Jonah was in it, but I sure do now.

In April 2009, I received a note from Steven Abusch. We had been sharing reflections on a poem Jonah had written to his cast at the end of PGT summer camp. Steven writes, “In reading it again just now, I realize he alludes to coming back to PGT next summer. How could it be possible that I feel my loss is even greater from that one sentence? Your boy… well, they do say in all good comedy … leave ‘em wanting more. He got that down, that’s for sure.”

Billy

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