Joan Mankin was a dedicated student of mine and a living treasure in many ways; let me tell you about some of them. She was an actor, director, physical comedian, teacher, swimmer, pioneer of women's martial arts, and a rabbi. Most people knew her by her clown name, Queenie Moon, but I will always remember her by her martial arts, hero name--Jade Mango.
Joan attended the University of Chicago in the late 1960s and moved to San Francisco to work with the Mime Troop at a time when they were at the center of hippy counter-culture. She once did a topless trampoline show in Union Square, the most public space in San Francisco. Later she worked with the pioneering Pickle Family Circus. I have fond memories of seeing her perform with both of these groups when I was just a child. She went on to perform with almost all the major theaters in the San Francisco area. As a performer she was among the best in the business. Here is an obituary of her as an performer.
Joan came to my class three mornings a week for more than ten years. She was my student; however, when someone with high-caliber skills like Joan's comes to study with you, you become their student too. In class, when something funny was said, she would ask the questions, "Would adding some physical element improve it? A waddle perhaps? What about the voice, or the phrasing? What really makes that funny? Do we understand it? What does it tell us about who we are? What does it tell us about the human condition?" We all developed the habits of making things more funny.
But before I go on, I want to tell you how I met Joan. One night I went on a double-blind date, which involved a Hawiian outrigger-canoe and the four of us paddling on the San Francisco Bay. It was after midnight and we snuck into the women's bathroom at the South End Rowing club, and since I was there, I posted a flier for my martial arts classes in the sauna. Joan came to class a couple days later. I was immediately honored and amazed to have her as a student. But she kept asking who I knew at the South End Rowing club, and I kept saying I don't know anyone. Joan was persistent, knowing I had a secret was like an invitation for her. When I finally told her I had put the flier there myself, she was incredulous, after all, it was in the women's sauna! That made her more animated, forcing me to tell her every lurid detail. After that when she wanted to give me a hard time, she would say, "Wait, who do you know at the South End Rowing Club?"
She swam in the freezing cold San Francisco Bay several times a week, and her daughter Emma held the record for the youngest person ever to swim underneath the Golden Gate Bridge; she made the crossing at age 10.
Joan was a pioneer of women's self-defense in the 1970s. She understood that freedom comes with responsibility. Below is a picture of her and Laurie Cahn, they both were students of Adam Hsu's, performing a theatrical demonstration about the importance of self-defense.
Joan was from a long tradition of fighting rabbis. A rabbi is a well-read person, knowledgeable in multiple realms, who can argue many points-of-view simultaneously. A rabbi is one who listens carefully and does not hesitate to take a contrary view if she believes it is merited. This is why you can trust a rabbi. You know they will tell you what they think. And you also know that their commitment to you is deeper than anything you can say.
Several times I had to get in-between Joan and another student she wanted to clobber. Joan never required anyone to agree with her, but if you dismissed her ideas she would kick your ass. As it should be; however, as the teacher, it was my job to keep the peace, and in each instance I actually thought Joan was wrong. But so what, I loved her for that.
Joan's moral authority made it possible for me to run a martial arts class where people could pinch each other's butts, mock each others physical skills, make faces behind my back while I was giving instructions, insert slapstick comedy, and become overwhelmed by shock, insult, love, offense, or a good smell.
Here is what it was like having Joan around. We all got martial arts, hero names while making this video. Her name came to me while I was eating a mango and discussing the sword name, Jade Destiny, from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Henceforth, she was known as Jade Mango!
On September 11, 2001, Joan and I heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center on our way to morning class. As we practiced together, we knew something big was happening, and it would become a powerful bond for us. The next day on the beach, no planes in the sky, I talked with a close friend about what had happened, what was happening, and I realized that things could get tough for me. I decided not to tell anyone what I thought about 9/11 because I could see that I was going to lose friends over it. And several months later, when I finally decide to speak up, I did lose most of my friends. But Joan was steadfast. She understood tragedy and that we were living through one.
Joan knew that the San Francisco theater scene had become an ideologically rigid world. She totally agreed with me, for instance, that the San Francisco Mime Troop had been putting on a different show with the same stupid plot for twenty years. She was shocked by my anti-union positions, but she listened intently. That kind of thing just made our mutual respect deeper. Listening is an opportunity to change one's mind, that is what listening is, and she modeled it.
Joan loved teaching and directing. The head of the School Of The Arts (SOTA) called her up one day and said, "I've been interviewing people to teach Physical Theater here and everyone so far has had your name on their resume as a teacher, so I thought, why not go directly to the source and see if you want to teach here?" She did. She also taught at the San Francisco Circus Center--Clown Conservatory. Her influence as a teacher is vast. Whereever you are in the world, there is a good chance you have laughed at something she had a hand in. She even spent a few months teaching clowning in China. Teaching was also a big bond between us, we shared problems and successes. Having someone to talk to regularly about how to be a better teacher is a fantastic gift.
On a more personal note. In the aftermath of 9/11, I was having trouble dating. The problem was that my dates would be going along fine and then, back at the apartment, I would get some question designed to trigger a statement of hatred toward a certain George W. Bush. If I failed to deliver, my date would suddenly have to go. The president had become a sort of gateway to women's vaginas. Of course, I could have lied and gotten all the sex I wanted. But that made me angry, I didn't want to lie. Joan understood this and was sympathetic. One day I told her that I really wanted to whistle at beautiful women. She was like, "Why would you want to do that?" and I was like, "You, know, it isn't really about them. It is just a desire to express my own sexuality." And she was like, "Ooohhh, great, do it!" So I took her advice, and it helped.
Joan was someone you could go to the dark side with. Laugh about it, a lot, and come back stronger. It was a great honor to know her.