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A Cancerous Play

February 11, 2009

Feeling guilty for hating a show about a woman dying from breast cancer.

What I am about to do may well banish me to hell: I am about to disparage an autobiographical play about terminal breast cancer, written by a playwright who recently died of the disease and produced by a theater company that just experienced a similarly close brush with death. How I could possibly live with myself and do such a terrible thing?

I'm feeling pretty awful about the task at hand, even if the playwright is oblivious to criticism at this point. But the theater company in question — facing one of the most vulnerable periods in its history to date — certainly isn't. Yet, given that my responsibility as a critic lies first and foremost with theatergoers wondering how to spend their hard-earned cash, I cannot help but be honest. I don't delight in banging proverbial nails into coffins. With regards to the Magic Theatre's production of Oni Faida Lampley's cancerous cancer play, Tough Titty, however, I feel obliged to show some tough love.

Charting a black woman's protracted fight against a stubborn tumor and its impact on her family, friends, and religious faith, Lampley's lopsided drama is, quite frankly, one mammary gland short of a pair. The narrative arc follows her alter ego, Angela — a rambunctious wife, mother, and cancer victim — as she journeys from diagnosis to death. Lampley relentlessly masticates the same material over and over, leaving little to our imaginations. Every detail of Angela's illness is laid bare, from the mastectomy and spinal surgery to the painkillers and sleeping pills. There is no subtext lurking beneath her yelps of annoyance, self-pity, and pain. The play is equally devoid of metaphor. The closest it comes to symbolism is in its depiction of Agatha, the patron saint of breast cancer. When Angela rails against God for dealing her a bum deck, Agatha appears as a character onstage, staring beatifically into the middle distance. As legend has it, the saint had her breasts torn off by a spurned admirer before being condemned to death, and thus represents the stoical acceptance of suffering. But in the context of Lampley's dramaturgy, Agatha comes to stand for something altogether more banal: "Shit happens" is the prevailing moral of the play.

Director Robert O'Hara's staging for the Magic is equally overbearing. Near the play's start, a cacophonous noise like an aircraft taking off accompanied by flashing lights clumsily underscores Angela's inner turmoil upon hearing the news of her tumor. Cheesy soul hits like "I Can See Clearly Now" and "Stand by Me" threaten to hit level 11 on the schmaltz dial. One ensemble member saddled with personifying Italian and Jamaican characters during the show overdoes the inexpert foreign accents. Even the program notes bludgeon us with explicit information about how we're supposed to think. "Angela is not a poor, sick person," we're told, but rather, "a vision of each one of us facing our own mortality."

Even a cold-hearted critic such as myself can see that Lampley's drama has some merit, however. Kimberly Herbert Gregory's Angela is particularly engrossing. As capable of quiet despair as she is of lashing out at her nearest and dearest, she moves smoothly between varying moods and modes throughout. Even when her physically and emotionally off-kilter character is staring down death, she brings Oprahlike bullishness to Lampley's rhythmic monologue (the only memorable speech in the play) about the sacrifices she's made: "Do you know the list of stuff I have denied myself so this kind of thing wouldn't happen?" Angela asks Agatha against the fittingly asymmetric rectangles of Caleb Levengood's Mondrian-inspired set. "I have been vegan, vegetarian, semivegetarian — lacto-ovo-poultry-macro. I considered living on air, but I couldn't pull it off. I've done gem elixirs, cat's claw, and garlic. Had a black 'white witch' analyze my hair. Medians, runes, mushrooms. Kintu Incan healing. Yoruba exorcisms, tuning forks, Bach flower essences. Fasting and Sephardic jazz. Acupressure, acupuncture, Cherokee bodywork. I applied to go to Mexico to drink my own pee, but they wouldn't give me a scholarship."

Not long before her death in April 2008 at age 49, Lampley described the play as her "pamphlet" — a solitary black woman's take on the breast cancer experience in a world littered with brochures depicting patients with white skin. Didactic, repetitive, and at times mawkishly sentimental, Tough Titty is indeed pamphletlike in feel. More self-help guide than play, the show would doubtless bring down the house at a cancer support group meeting or oncology convention. But as a fully fledged theatrical experience capable of touching even those audience members who've been lucky enough to avoid the calamities of cancer so far in their lives, it largely fails to resonate beyond the immediate circumstances of its central character and plot.

Still, there's something to be said for putting a difficult and intensely personal story like Lampley's on a professional stage. As a dramatic subject, terminal illness rarely makes for box-office gold. In these challenging economic times, people might generally prefer to forget their troubles in the company of a sunny musical comedy than that of a chemo patient, if they can afford to go to the theater at all. With this in mind, I admire the Magic's artistic director, Loretta Greco, for going ahead with Tough Titty even as her organization struggles to overcome its own potentially lethal financial problems. (The 42-year-old company recently underwent an emergency fund-raising campaign to avoid closing its doors for good.).

If only the play possessed anything approaching the dramatic power of other, vastly more eloquent disease dramas like David Lindsay-Abaire's Kimberly Akimbo or Margaret Edson's Wit. Tough titty for me. My fate is sealed: I hear Satan reserves the deepest circle in hell for politically incorrect theater critics.



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