It’s 4:00 p.m. on wintery Seattle Monday afternoon. The rain is falling sideways as we load up Liesl’s car with Thelma Houston’s costume and my Subaru with Korum, my colleague, and our French acrobats, Les Petits Freres. We’ve been invited to perform at the Sonics/Lakers game. Even though Key Arena is only four blocks away, it feels like it takes us twenty minutes to get through traffic.
We unload at the media entrance and Korum ushers everyone inside while I go park the car. When I finally get back to the arena, I follow Thelma’s voice to the center of the basketball court. Empty of fans, the Key Arena feels weirdly intimate. The lighting is subdued and the only people walking around are wearing official-looking jerseys and headsets. TZ Associate Artistic Director Reenie Duff and her daughter, Madelaine, are seated across the court from where Thelma is doing her sound check. Next to them the Freres have tossed their jackets and scarves on the courtside seats. The three Freres (Domitil, Mickeal and Gregory) cluster around Damian, the Sonic’s Entertainment Manager. They are busy discussing entrances and exits, sound cues and defining the performing space with Damian asking and answering questions in his rapid-fire sports-guy American English, while the Freres confer with each other in French and then one of them (not always the same one) answers Damian’s question. After the sound check and walk through, conversation veers towards the mysteries of Will Call, where do we go? Everyone gets on their cell phones. Girlfriends and wives, boyfriends and parents are alerted to correct location of the Sonics Ticket Office, envelopes are quickly scratched out and imprinted with new names.We decide not to go back to the spiegeltent and wander backstage to check out the dressing rooms and the crew meal. Backstage the ushers are handsomely dignified and incredibly helpful. Thelma Houston is already set up in her dressing room, busy with her make-up. We talk through the logistics, how much time she has to get ready, whether we should go eat now or later. The backstage food is not so bad. Chicken and burgers, bbq potato chips. Lots of bottled water. Finally it’s time. Thelma, resplendent in her Madame ZinZanni costume with her feathered headdress, emerges from her dressing room into the hallway. We joke around with the matronly usher and all have our pictures taken in various combinations with Thelma. The Refs emerge from their secure dressing room and despite the armed police escort, flirt with Thelma as they parade by. We walk briskly around the stadium perimeter, skirting the underneath of the grandstand risers, Thelma’s high heels clicking confidently on the concrete floor. The pulse of the place has picked up significantly and with the surge in the volume of people, it’s as though the place has vaulted up several stories. Lights are blindingly bright, the music is relentlessly upbeat. We stand in the vom leading into the court, waiting, smiling like our faces will break, ready for Thelma’s cue to sing. The Lakers are practicing down at this end. Graceful as cheetahs, they lope effortlessly down and back to the half court line, stopping and popping up to swish balls in from mid-court. A horn blasts and the pace picks up even more, the announcer’s voice booms, lights spin. The Lakers exit the court walking past Thelma, most nodding to her, some stopping to shake her hand. A Seattle Times photographer stops me and we chat about a recent online audio slide show about El Vez that appeared several weeks ago. We agree that camping out at the tent and working closely with the performers yields the best work. She wishes us luck and vanishes into the crowd. Suddenly the Freres arrive, fluttering around Thelma like butterflies, kissing her on both cheeks for luck and disappearing as quickly as they came. The announcer introduces Thelma: “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Grammy award-winning performing artist Thelma Houston, now appearing as Madame ZinZanni at Teatro ZinZanni. Please rise as she sings our national anthem.” It’s a force four goose-bump moment when Thelma hits the “rockets red glare.” Then just like that, boom, the song is over and the game begins. Both teams are comprised of this amazing race of tall, slender muscular men who gracefully navigate the length of the court, speaking their own silent language of body cues and strategy, making their own kind of mesmerizing music. Liesl and I join the rest of the ZinZanni cast in their seats and watch as the Sonics take the lead from the Lakers. Suddenly it’s the first timeout of the second quarter, our next cue for the Freres to get ready. Backstage the Sonics Dance Team Girls are stretching and practicing in the hallway, while Squatch, the Sonics’ mascot, combs out his fur in a full-length mirror. The Freres start their warm up. Finally their cue comes at the top of Half Time. The crowd rises all at once and starts streaming towards the exits for the bathrooms and the concessions stands. Two of the Freres enter from one end of the court while the other comes in on the opposite side, swimming literally against the crowd. Their act is performed to “Sing, Sing, Sing (with a swing),” music made famous by Benny Goodman. The music alone is hard to ignore. Add three saucy Parisian pixies and you have the Sonics crowd stopped in their tracks. A cool minute into their act, the Freres had conquered the crowd. By the time they stack standing up on one another’s shoulders, everyone was roaring. And, oh by the way, the Sonics only lost by two points in overtime.