Out of darkness and balloons, Jim Young stepped into my life. It was Intro to Theater, freshman year, and I had slid from harsh daylight into a darkened womb called Arena Theater, a black box theater at Wheaton College in Illinois.
The balloons were tied to the floor, suspended mid-air, so that we had to walk through them like trees. And when this small, excitable man I would soon know as Jimma spat my name – RickBonn — like two bullets, I didn’t yet know I had just found home.
The room was black, from floor to wall to a ceiling that hid catwalks and lights. Risers held chairs in front of three walls and the black wooden floor – which would graciously receive my sweat, tears, fears and hurts over the next few years – was bare, empty, waiting to be filled.
Sitting on a stool in the dim cool, Jim’s voice rang out. “In the beginning…there was LIGHT.” And on the last word, light came, encircling him, and we were off. He read the first chapter of Genesis, the Creation story. I had read it countless times, but this man was willing it to life. As his words thrust and parried, echoing the God who summoned life out of darkness, Jim Young summoned light and life into that dark space and forever into my heart.
Later, two actors scampered around a household scene calling each other ‘bears’ and ‘squirrels’ and the room exploded with emotional intimacy and intensity I’d only seen once in a parental fight. Then a youthful sentinel sang ‘Being Alive,’ a Stephen Sondheim song, and I couldn’t stop crying. I had never heard Sondheim, but my heart knew in hearing I was no longer alone. By the time a group sang ‘Consider yourself part of the family…’, I had found a home I never knew existed and only grasped at in my dreams. Jim and his co-creators saved me that day.
I would not know Stephen Sondheim without Jimma. Or Frederick Buechner. Or Thomas Merton or Richard Foster or any of an extended family now called Workout. When Jim saw me, he looked into me. In any single moment alone with him, I was all that mattered to him and he honored me with his attention, in barking my name, in asking me to water the hanging plants, in creating improvisations to free me and my characters, in helping me center and be truthful and specific.
Jimma, I wish we could do it all again. And in heaven maybe we shall. I would sit at your feet and listen to every story again, rejoice in every prayer, receive every jab in the shoulder or knee with delight. I would eat soup with you again and Torpedo Rolls.
I would see you again, Jimma. I thought I did today. The hair was white and short, the glasses the same, and he was leaning into a young child making her feel she was the most precious person alive. Could have been me and you.
Let’s do it all again, shall we Jimma? Let’s hold hands in a circle. Let’s walk and pray. Let’s stop a class and listen to the Holy Spirit. Let’s be frantic and exacting and fierce. Let’s find the gut of a bald Compeyson with only two lines – remembering there are no small parts. Let’s say ‘Once upon a time!’ together again as we did every night going ‘Into the Woods.’ Let’s bravely contact L’Engle, Keillor, and Potok and host a festival of their words. Let’s be in the moment together and clasp fingers and look at each other’s weathered faces. And smile. It was good, wasn’t it? It was all good.
And it’s not gone. It never is. You will live forever in our hearts. And we will join you soon, for aren’t you in the land where a day is as a thousand years? Rise, my young prince, rise.