ARLINGTON, Virginia, October 31, 2011 ― The idea of a musical about breast cancer might sound odd, but the premiere of Breast in Show earlier this Breast Cancer Awareness Month was a welcome addition to the fight for education and awareness.
Many of us have surely had our eyes opened this past month through ads, testimonies, races and other special programs. Breast in Show has stuck with me since I saw the premiere at Maryland’s Rockville Jewish Community Center on October 15. From the first notes sung by the strong cast, the show quickly felt like something that has just been waiting to come into existence, a piece that has always been needed and just finally found its time and proper expression.
The musical follows four people – one of whom is a man – through treatment for breast cancer. Although these characters move from diagnosis through chemotherapy and toward recovery – or not – the small cast of six also take turns playing various different roles of spouses, doctors. This practice of “doubling” or rotating roles conveys the feeling that any of us in the audience could really find ourselves in any of the positions being acted out on stage.
The musical moves through numerous – and humorous – short scenes and in and out of a dozen or so songs that give the audience a chance to hear inner dialogues and poignant conversations. Most of all, we see the process of diagnosis and treatment as rich and varied and, as life often is, funny, if cruelly so.
Periodic pauses between scenes bring all the actors to the fore in front of a dark pink background on which are projected statistics that the actors share with us in unison spoken-word. We’re allowed to laugh as the actors sing, but when they don expressionless faces and stand in a straight line at the front of the stage to tell us things like one in eight women in the U.S. will get breast cancer, we are reminded of the gravity of the disease that has brought us to the theater. The toggle between scenes and didactic bits is strangely not jarring. It’s as if the spoken statistic portions are a friend nudging us to say, “It’s okay to laugh and enjoy the show, because we all really do understand how serious this is.”
The eponymous opening number shares a sense of disbelief upon diagnosis that comes as a “punch in the stomach.” The characters protest that they were always so healthy, always the ones to take care of others. As if to answer the question of why stage this disease’s toll in song, they belt out that “nothing is more therapeutic” than getting it off their chests.
The follow-up song, “Blah Blah Blah,” lets viewers in on the confusing landscape of cancer-speak, which is like another language. Signposts of “chemotherapy” and “very serious” and other scary words stand out against the flattened lingo of “blah blah” set to catchy tunes that pattern over each other in harmony and with a complex rhythmic pattern. The audience laughed along at the song, delivered through this rich texture of music juxtaposed against the incomprehensible – and so blurred out – medical jargon. Anyone who has ever sat in a doctor’s office can relate on some level, but the whole play also makes those of us without personal cancer experience aware of the steep learning curve we have not been forced to climb.
The show’s levity is in force most during “The Chemo Café.” The “barista” oncology nurse delivers a “cocktail to keep your ass alive” while the “patrons” dance with their IV bags and sing of flipping through a copy of “Vanity Fair from last May” at the Chemo Café. The nurse role seems almost designed for production standout Iyona Blake, who urges her charges to “let your hair down if you got any there.” Blake also rocks “The Deadliest Cell in Town,” which posits cancer as a “bad boy”-type trailblazer in contrast to goody-goody regular cells who “do what they should.”
“Lily and Ramon” also uses humor to demonstrate how cancer takes its toll on relationships. The best way for the man with breast cancer and his wife to express their fears is through pretending to talk like their dogs, as they describe in this number, which might seem a throwaway to some. It succeeds in reaching anyone who has struggled in a relationship when faced with a crisis.
The song “Pink” calls into question the very notion of the omnipresent ribbons and color-coded tchotchkes that are supposed to raise awareness of the disease. Although the show’s program and website utilize the color and a swirling stars version of the ribbon icon, the characters are ambivalent. “Pink,” they spit out, rhyming with lines like “surrounded by chunks of hair in the sink.”
This ambivalence resonated with Liz Matthews, a mother of four who had a few days left of radiation treatment when she saw the show. “Even though I have some pink ribbon things, and I like wearing my pink ‘hope’ and ‘strength’ bracelets…it has been kind of difficult going through this month of October and seeing it everywhere. You’re shopping for groceries, singing along to the piped in oldies, forgetting about cancer, and boom there are the pink ribbons everywhere. At the same time, I am moved to tears sometimes by all the activism and support. So it’s a mixed thing for me.”
Matthews was less on board with the suggestion made by the show and its backdrop text that “survivor” be replaced with “warrior.” “Everyone has to use the terms that feel right to them,” she said, adding that she likes the term “survivor.” “It feels like it describes someone who has made it through cancer treatment, or even through just the day of diagnosis,” and the more battle-like term of “warrior” hasn’t resonated with her. She felt the show was trying to make her feel bad about using the term she prefers.
One show cannot be all things to all people, but this one covers most of the bases. It does however, leave out any discussion of lifestyle changes like diet, nutrition, exercise or meditation. It’s probably just as well; if one character went on some kind of Zen pilgrimage and then recovered – or died – her or his story would then take on a different hue. Also left out of the show are the topics of radiation and reconstruction, which have been and will be significant components of Matthews’ experience.
Matthews enjoyed the show but suggested that seeing it while still in treatment might not be the ideal time. Two of the most poignant songs of the evening choked her up, along with most of us in the audience. “Normal” and “Time” both made pleas for just more of regular life. The characters wish not for travel or new cars, but just for one more birthday, one more summer, one more day of normal. Anyone who has suffered a loss or who worries about illness taking them before their children is sure to go home and squeeze loved ones tight after these beautiful tear-jerkers.
Producer Eileen Mitchard, who also conceived of the show’s concept, hopes to take Breast in Show on the road to other cities where it’s likely to receive the same warm reception it did at its DC-area premiere.
Jessica Claire Haney is a freelance writer, editor and tutor. Her writing has appeared in parenting publications and poetry journals. A former high school English teacher, Jessica is mother to a five-year-old son and a baby girl. She is passionate about holistic health and well-being and is a leader of a chapter of Holistic Moms Network.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.