“The Hebrew Word for Tapeworm”
Being a miseducated American, I tends to conflate greatness with bigness. Remember what your history teacher told you about Lincoln? “Abraham Lincoln was a great president. He freed the slaves. He was a very tall man.” As though emancipation could never have been carried off by a small man. So when I walked into the room where I was to meet one of Nigeria’s national treasures, I expected someone Lincolnian. The man I found instead was…Napoleonic. Ola Rotimi was shorter and rounder than I was. He had short, graying hair and enormous glasses, and though he sat during my audition, he was never still. His head bobbed. His hands drummed. His feet tapped. And when he saw my audition form, he turned into a bouncing ball of Nigerian glee.
“Hebrew! We haven’t had anyone put that language yet! Sing something! Sing me a folk song!”
My father is tone deaf. I was well into my teens before I discovered that Jewish prayers are traditionally sung, not spoken. Folk songs? May the God of Abraham and Isaac forgive me; I only had one option:
“Hava nagilah, hava nagilah
Hava nagilah, ve nismecha”
There are three tiers of lepers in Hopes of the Living Dead. The named lepers are the educated ones, English speakers who communicate with the British guards. The numbered lepers are less educated but no less eloquent; from time to time they pop out of the scenery, deliver short, heartfelt tirades in their native tongues - Kiswahili, Japanese, Gaelic - and sit down while a named leper translates. The chorus lepers - did I mention that these are singing lepers? - are mainly space filler, good for making noise in crowd scenes.
The day the cast announcement was posted, I ran to the drama department, and there it was: Eli Jean Weintraub: Leper #1 (Hebrew-speaking leper). It was the proudest moment of my life. Then they handed me a script, and I got my first glimpse at the first line I had to translate: “It is not hunger that worries us. It is fear - fear that gnaws like the tapeworm. Fear that there will be no food tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. When will we be free to care for ourselves?”
Tapeworm? Oh, was I screwed.