Rise Above it, Darling: The Story of Joan White—Actor, Director, Teacher, Producer and (Sometimes) Mother
Judy White Staber
Troy Book Makers, 2022,
Joan White, who died in 1999, was a consummate professional. On stage, her comedic chops earned her a lifelong harvest of rave reviews; behind the scenes, her directing and producing were likewise lauded, and the erudition and generosity of spirit she displayed as an acting teacher inspired gratitude and devotion throughout the world of trans-Atlantic theater.
Yet Joan White also did something unthinkable to most: As a young, ambitious single mother in post-WWII England, she left her daughters Judy—just shy of four years old—and her sister Susannah, seven, at the Actors Orphanage, a neo-Georgian mansion in Surrey housing “children made destitute by the profession,” and never retrieved them.
Staber spent 12-and-a-half years there, the first few under a harsh administration employing the classic British boarding school terror tactics of rigid hierarchy and corporal punishment. Later on, saner souls took over, and the mansion—called Silverlands—became a happier place to live. (Staber’s memoir of the experience, Silverlands: Growing Up at the Actor’s Orphanage, was published in 2010.) White kept in touch, arriving with one gentleman friend or another in sporty cars on visiting Sundays, taking the girls on various cultural expeditions and visits, but her first priority was undeniably her career.
The pain of abandonment in early childhood to unkind strangers is not something a person can simply rationalize away. Staber, a Chatham resident and multiarts professional, wields a rare emotional courage throughout this biography, blending collegial admiration with honest, anguished disillusionment without letting either aspect overwhelm the story of a 20th-century thespian.
What emerges is an insightful backstage view of the ups, downs, and spin cycles experienced by a serious comedic artist often credited with making good productions great and saving lesser ones from being completely unwatchable; a versatile and gifted actor, director, producer, and teacher. Staber remembers visiting her mother at sketchy flats and in splendid settings, and in later life would experience for herself the realities of being on the road with a production company. It’s an open question what kind of childhood the girls would have had if White had kept them with her through those hungrier early years without making entirely different choices.
That was likely a question White asked of herself, yet whatever answers she arrived at weren’t shared with her daughter. Such parenting as she attempted was curiously tone deaf and thoughtless for someone whose lifework was based on interpreting and portraying human emotion, and she refused to explain to the girls anything much about their father, stage manager Archie Moore—who, it later became clear, wanted to be more involved with his children than White ever allowed him to be, post-divorce.
In her later years, White took to writing her daughter regular letters, and the two would work together more than once on theater productions. It was, of course, too little too late. Staber experienced outright shock when she learned years later that her mother had confided vast shame and regret to a former student turned co-worker; it was not something White ever shared with her. Her devotion to the creative nurturance of other young people, both in the theater and with her grandchildren, stood in stark contrast to her complete lack of any discernible effort to step back into the role of maternal nest-builder during her daughters’ childhood, or offer any coherent explanation after the fact.
Staber’s unsparing honesty, coupled with her unfailing fairness, come together in a deftly and generously told tale that sheds light on the dramatic arts and the drama of atypical family experience in equal measure. One imagines White would be bursting with pride, refusing more than a crumb of credit—but probably, for all of her fearlessness on stage and in the director’s chair, unable to find the right words to fully communicate that pride to her daughter.
That Staber manages to make art of all this is a gift to mothers and daughters everywhere. “Rise above it,” White’s signature catchphrase, is one that this remarkable book reveals to be far more than an empty slogan on both sides of the generation gap, even when it has widened into a chasm.
—Anne Pyburn Craig