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Perfect casting

Her name is Patty. She's 39 years old.

Behind tortoiseshell glasses, tranquil brown eyes watch the world. She has a soft grace about her, a peace that comes from somewhere deep inside. Patty is quiet much of the time. But when she laughs _ mouth wide, sucking in air to make a gravely "hee hee" sound _ you can't help but laugh, too.

His name is Bob. He's 47.

Sometimes people mistake him for movie star Samuel L. Jackson, which is fitting. Bob's an actor, director and playwright who has staged plays from Greece to Washington, D.C., directed Shakespeare festivals, adapted Strindberg's Miss Julie for an all African-American cast.

He's tall and slim and has the smooth manners of a gentleman. Bob loves to whip up batches of chocolate chip cookies for friends. He's also an insomniac _ the price of a brooding mind.

A few months ago Bob and Patty didn't know each other. His world: a whirl of rehearsals, performances, writing sessions and meetings with arts councils. Hers: a simple routine of church, home, classes at a St. Petersburg art center and a part-time job ripping up books for recycling.

Bob and Patty met only because someone at the art center, Creative Clay, laid their files side by side and said, "Patty Barber and Bob Devin Jones. Hmmm. I bet they'd be a good pair."

At Creative Clay, developmentally disabled people learn painting, sculpture and other arts. Once a year, in a program called Artlink, professional artists pair up with student artists in partnerships lasting several months. At the end, they show off their work in an art show and theater performance.

Along the way, artistic skills are honed. Self esteem soars. And friendships bloom.

The creative team

She sits in her motorized wheelchair at a paint-spattered table in the back room of Creative Clay, wearing a Mona Lisa smile. It's the first week of March. The room is crowded, noisy, happy.

"One . . . two . . . three . . . FUNNY FACES!" an instructor yells.

Everyone mugs. Loud guffaws ring out around the room.

Patty watches the clock. Bob is coming today, for the first time.

He walks in a moment later, wearing pressed black jeans and a long-sleeved olive shirt. She extends her right hand.

"Hello, my name's Patty. Patty Barber."

They sit together while Patty eats her lunch. One by one she takes items out of an insulated cooler bag. Lunchables cheese and crackers. A bottle of Dasani water. A strawberry Nutri-Grain bar.

"So your name is Bob Evan Jones?" she asks.

"Bob Devin Jones," he says. He tells her about his family, about growing up in Los Angeles.

"That's nice," Patty says.

He compliments her purple blouse. She giggles. He tells her what he cooked for dinner last night: chicken, collard greens, polenta."That sounds good," she says. In between bites, she sneaks looks at him, sideways.

He tells her about a one-man play he wrote and is starring in. He has brought a script to show her.

"You know, Patty, for our Artlink project, I thought we might have you write a play. It could be about something you like or someone you admire, maybe someone in your family."

"Oh-kaay," she says.

"And then, what do you think about this? After you write this play, maybe you could memorize it and share it with some other people. Have you ever had to memorize anything?"

"Mem-mor-rize? I don't think so. Somebody taught me to read. I tried to read."

She uses her wrist to push her glasses back up her nose.

"You know, sometimes I don't perform my own work," Bob says. "I perform someone else's words."

She looks directly at Bob.

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Certainly."

"What if I want to perform my play?"

He grins broadly.

"That's what I'd like you to do!"

"I think I will," she says, nodding. "I think I would do that."

A few minutes later, their hour is up. Bob stands.

"Well, Patty, everybody told me before I met you that you are a delightful woman."

"I am," she says, looking up at him.

Their first play

A week later they meet again.

Bob unloads books from a satchel: Great Negroes Past and Present, A Pictorial History of Black Americans. He presents a new three-ring binder to Patty and says she can keep all her playwriting material in it.

"Hey, Bob, can I tell you something?"

"What?"

"I can't read that well," she says, without shame.

"That's not a problem," he says. "What you can't read, I'll read. And we're just going to look at pictures, anyway."

He opens a coffee-table book called Crowns, about the lavish hats African-American women wear to church. He turns the pages slowly. Patty's eyes are fixed on the book.

"What do you like about this hat?" he asks, stopping at one picture.

"I like the wide-scoop brim," she says.

He turns the page. A woman in a huge, black-and-white, polka-dotted hat.

"What do you like about this one?"

She pauses, her eyes searching the ceiling. Sometimes the word she wants eludes her. She has to wait for it to emerge from the shadows.

"It's . . . it's . . . very . . . outgoing."

Bob leans forward, delighted.

"Now that's an interesting way to describe an inanimate object. See? You're already a playwright!"

"I am?"

"Yes! You're making me see this hat. You've breathed life into it."

"I have?"

She is slightly stunned.

He scribbles "very outgoing" on a sheet of paper.

They look at more pictures. He coaxes other adjectives out of her.

Glowing.

Fancy.

Fresh.

"Now," he says, "We're going to write a little story in the next five minutes. About what it would be like if Patty wore a hat. And this little paragraph will be . . ." He pauses dramatically, his eyebrows arching. "Our First Play."

She stares at him, fascinated.

"Now, what would the title of our play be?"

"Um . . . Patty's Hat. Or . . . you could say, uh . . . Patty Likes to Wear Hats."

He takes a new sheet of paper, writes the title, underlines it with three black lines. She watches, enthralled.

"I like you, Bob."

He looks up, smiling.

"I like you back, Patty."

Patty's story

It's late March. Patty already has two playlets in her white notebook.

Every time she wheels into the room at Creative Clay where Bob is waiting, he teases her about what she's wearing.

"Oh, you just threw on any old thing today, didn't you?" he says one afternoon in a Southern belle accent, flapping one wrist.

She dissolves into giggles.

He notices when she's wearing her hair differently. He asks what she had for lunch. He tells her what he has been doing since they last met.

Patty basks in the attention.

"The great thing about playwriting," he tells her, "is that it's always your words. There's nobody saying, "Don't use this word or that word.' And when you see that line "By Patty Barber . . .' " He sweeps his hand through the air, looking up at an imaginary marquee, "There's such a feeling of "I did that! Me!' "

When they work, Patty's job is to recall things about her life. Bob's is to write down the memories.

"I used to didn't be in a wheelchair," she tells him one day. "When I was a little girl, I used to be able to walk."

Her eyes roam around the room as the story trickles out.

"I was outside one day with my sister, in the back yard. I was near a tree. I went inside the house and my mom was sitting in the living room. That's when it happened."

Bob lays his pen on the table and looks up.

"I was walking by my mom and then I sat down real hard. Boom. On the floor. And I didn't get up anymore. It was scary." Her forehead wrinkles.

"Really," Bob says, careful to keep his voice flat. He doesn't want her to stop.

"Mmm-hmm. And then they took me to the hospital. They were trying to find out what was wrong. I had cerebral palsy."

By the end of the hour, they have written a 12-line play titled Why I Didn't Get Up. Bob's yellow legal pad is covered with scribbling.

"Are you going to type that up?" she asks.

"Yes, I am. This is a very beautiful remembrance, Patty. It's painful, but it's beautiful how you recall it."

"Oh-kaaay."

A front-row seat

Bob's day planner is a mass of names and phone numbers, some highlighted in lime green. While Bob and Patty work, a cell phone sometimes rings inside his briefcase. He ignores it.

Patty has no such burdens. Only her omnipresent smile.

"You've had that smile a long time, haven't you?" Bob asks her one day.

"Yeah."

"So you're generally a happy person."

"Yes, I am."

"Why do you think that is?"

She pauses.

"Well, while I'm happy it makes me feel joyful," she finally says. "I'm just glad to be here. My life is so wonderful."

She looks him squarely in the eye.

"Those are my feelings, Bob."

They're now working toward a goal. June 12. That's six weeks away.

On that evening Patty will roll onto the stage at St. Petersburg's American Stage, in front of an audience, and perform one of the plays she and Bob wrote. They call it My Life is So Wonderful Now. She'll sing a few songs, tell a few jokes. Bob will be right beside her.

To help her understand what it will be like, Bob invites Patty to come see him in Uncle Bends: A home-cooked negro narrative, the show he wrote, directed and stars in at American Stage. It's a collection of monologues by African-American characters. Bob has done the show all over the United States and in Ireland.

Patty has a front-row seat at the Sunday matinee. Her live-in caregiver is with her. When the house lights dim and Bob glides out on stage, wearing a white shirt, black pants and suspenders, Patty's eyes grow round.

He lights a candle and starts chopping onions, while humming along to blues played by a guitarist at the edge of the stage.

"Good afternoon," Bob says, looking up at the audience.

"Good afternoon," everyone responds.

For two hours, Bob commands the stage, wrapping a shawl around his shoulders to become a slave woman, polishing shoes of audience members as a shoeshine boy. All the while, a fragrant pot of beans and rice cooks on a portable stove on stage.

At the end, audience members crowd onstage and Bob serves each one a bowl of beans and rice. Patty wants hot sauce on hers.

Starting with a song

Throughout April and May, they rehearse. It's grinding work. Patty struggles with the words on the page, her head bowed over the white notebook, a stubby index finger moving along the typed lines.

"I . . . was so . . . little . . . at the time," she reads haltingly. "Small like a baby."

Bob scoots his chair beside her so he can reach over and point out words as she misses them.

"Hospital," he prompts.

"Hospital," she says.

"Painful."

"Painful."

Some days she recognizes a few words; she can recite whole lines. Other times she is stumped by any word longer than "I."

Still she presses on. "I've got to get this," she says, bent nearly double over the notebook in her lap.

"This is how I learned my play," Bob says. "By repeating it over and over. They call it by rote. And one of the tricks is to say it out loud, just like you'll say it onstage."

" 'Cause the audience will be listening to me!"

Bob thinks her performance should begin with a song. He asks her to name a few favorites.

Jesus Loves Me

Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head

Mary Had a Little Lamb

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

During rehearsals, Bob uses the songs as tension-relievers. After a tough session of memory work, he invariably asks for a song.

"Raindrops keep fallin' on my heeeeead," she sings, totally unembarrassed. Bob snaps his fingers in rhythm.

Home work

One Thursday, just before noon, Bob stands in the kitchen of his waterfront house in St. Petersburg, frying chicken. Chocolate chip cookies cool on a wire rack. Classical music wafts from the radio.

Just as he gets everything ready _ the cornbread, the green beans, the mashed potatoes, the fresh-squeezed lemonade _ Patty arrives with her caregiver.

"Smells good, Bob," she says.

They eat lunch on a wooden deck under a huge oak tree in the front yard. They talk about alligators and stingrays, cookie recipes and movies. They tell each other about their churches. Bob describes the party he hosted after his commitment ceremony with his partner, Jim Howell.

Soon the plates are empty. Patty thanks Bob, then he helps her out to the car.

"Thanks for gracing our house," Bob says, clasping her hands through the open car window.

Several weeks later, Bob visits Patty's house on a winding street near Tyrone Square Mall. They sit together at the kitchen table.

Only one month to showtime, and it's obvious Patty will not have all the lines memorized.

Bob is unconcerned. "We can always pad out our evening with a few . . ."

He raps the table with his knuckles.

"Knock-knock jokes!" Patty crows.

For 45 minutes, she struggles through her lines. Bob performs charades to help her remember words and phrases. For "sick kids," he coughs. For "time" he taps his wristwatch. For "walk outside," his fingers crabwalk across the table.

Finally he notices she is sinking in her wheelchair.

"You tired?" he asks.

"No, it's fun," she insists. "I asked for this. I wanted to do it."

Artists' statements

At one of their last meetings before the play, Bob asks Patty to help him draft an artist's statement for the Artlink catalog.

"I learned a lot of great things from you, Bob," she says.

"What great things?"

"Like, you try to teach me to read my scripts."

"Uh-huh. And what else?"

"I learned that Bob is wonderful. That's what I learned about Bob."

He tries again.

"Why did you want to write these plays?"

"Why? Um, because I've never done something like this before. I wanted to see if I could do it."

He takes off his glasses and lays them on the table, then picks up an imaginary microphone.

"Okay, let's pretend I'm Montel Williams."

He puts the microphone in front of Patty.

"Tell me, Miss Barber, why is your life so wonderful now?"

She titters.

"Um, because of all the great things that are happening to me."

Montel's eyebrows lift.

"Really? Like what?"

"Like, I'm doing this play."

By the time they part, Bob has shaped Patty's thoughts into her statement:

I think we did great! Because it made me feel happy inside and grateful. I've never done a thing like this before. I wanted to read. To try and see if I could do it. And I'm doing it!

He also writes one himself. It reads, in part:

The gift of this collaboration with Patty has been a joy. She has been fearless in her willingness and eagerness to learn, her splendid determination to be a writer and to read. The continuous hero in our several months of working together has been Patty's wonderful enthusiasm, and her laugh. She has taught me how to listen. Thank you Patty, for being all that you are.

Red roses Patty Barber

Late on the afternoon of June 12, Bob and Patty are backstage at American Stage. A dozen other people mill about. Six Artlink pairs are on the program. Each will have 10 minutes on stage.

Patty seems unruffled, but her fingers clench the white notebook in her lap. She's wearing black crepe pants, a sparkly purple blouse and a necklace of gold and purple beads. Her hair is an elaborate up-twist of curls, with purple highlights painted in them.

"You look terrific!" Bob tells her, kneeling beside the wheelchair. "I knew you'd wear purple, so I found this tie that's gold and purple."

He has a box of booklets that volunteers will hand out to the audience. On the cover is a drawing by Patty of three flowers. Inside are the plays they wrote, the list of her favorite songs and a collection of "Patty's Thoughts."

A few minutes after 6:30, the show gets under way. Every seat is sold out. Bob and Patty wait in the wings during the other performances.

"Hey, Patricia," he whispers, patting her shoulder. "How are you?"

"I feel fine," she says. "I'm not nervous."

Finally it's their turn. Bob wheels Patty out into the lights, parks her wheelchair at center stage, then sits beside her. They look out over the audience, beaming.

He introduces the two of them, the booklets are passed out, she sings a song. Then she launches into her lines, looking down at the notebook as she has a hundred times before.

"I was so little at the time . . . small like a baby."

She stumbles over the same words that have always confused her. She stops, starts over. Bob points out each line, murmuring soft prompts.

The audience, eager to find something to like, laughs loudly at the line in which she calls her wheelchair a "black Cadillac." Patty looks up, startled and pleased.

As always with her knock-knock jokes, no one _ not even Patty _ knows what the punch line will be.

"Knock knock," she says, gazing at the audience.

"WHO'S THERE?" they shout.

"Red roses," Patty says.

"RED ROSES WHO?"

"Red roses Patty Barber I love you."

An awwwww ripples through the audience.

"And now, how about one more song?" Bob asks.

She hesitates.

"What song is that?"

He leans over and whispers, his hand cupped to her ear.

"He's got the whooooole worrrrld . . . in his hands," she sings. The audience claps along, then stands to applaud as Bob wheels her offstage.

A few minutes later, the whole cast comes onstage to sing Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. The music pumps at full volume. Audience members gyrate in the aisles.

In the middle of the madness, Bob gently moves Patty's wheelchair back and forth. They're dancing. A perfect pair.

Collaborators Bob Devin Jones and Patty Barber, on their way to a sumptuous Southern feast Jones has prepared, shared many thoughts and good home cooking, during their collaboration on a play for American Stage in St. Petersburg.

_______

Going over her lines at home, Patty bursts out laughing at one of Bob's comments. The two met through Creative Clay, in a program called Artlink. Professional artists pair up with student artists.

______

Under the large oak tree that shades Bob's deck, a table offers an inviting spot for talking _ and tasting a feast Bob has prepared: fried chicken, green beans, cornbread, mashed potatoes, lemonade and chocolate chip cookies. Clockwise from left, Bob, Patty and Nancy Wisdom, Patty's caregiver.

_____-

While she and Bob wait in the wings for their turn on stage, Patty gives her lines a last-minute glance.

_______

During a curtain-call finale at a dress rehearsal two days before the American Stage show, Patty claps to the song Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, while Bob moves her chair to the beat.

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