Dallas — Soul Rep Theatre Company, celebrating its 11th season of plays centered on the soul and spirit of black culture, is teaming up with Echo Theatre, founded in 1998 to produce the works of women playwrights, to produce The Monarch, the world premiere and latest work by Soul Rep Co-Founder Anyika McMillan-Herod.
The production opens June 15 at the Bath House Center, and is co-directed by the playwright and Tonya Holloway, Soul Rep’s co-artistic director and co-founder.
TheaterJones talked with the playwright about the genesis of her new play, its development, and Soul Rep’s collaboration with Echo Theatre.
TheaterJones: The Monarch is about breast cancer. What brought you to write the play and how long did it take?
Anyika McMillan-Herod: I was diagnosed with cancer 11 years ago and journaled throughout the treatment and recovery. I’ve been in remission for 10 years. Two years after remission I wanted to write a play. My blog posts during treatment seemed to really speak to people, so I decided to make a play of my experience. a natural progression, since I’m a playwright.
Can you describe the development process of this play?
The first reading was six years ago at South Dallas Cultural Center, and it was wonderful for me in continuing the healing process. In 2015, I signed up to participate in Dallas Theater Center’s Dallas Playwrights Workshop, led by Will Power, and spent several month working with him on The Monarch. I started with a large cast of 10 women and men and 15 scenes. Later that year in Soul Rep’s’ New Play Fest we did excerpts of the play with voices of other women who made the journey, and I whittled it down to three actors. After that, I saw that the entire play needed paring down. The most work for me, and for many playwrights, has been making the work shorter. I had to release the men from the play. Even my husband told me to let the men go. The finished play is simply a prologue, an epilogue, and four women performing monologues, poems and stories about their personal journeys, and how each survived breast cancer.
Do you deal with issues of racism, sexism and economic disparity in the play?
Because I’m an African-American writer, the play reflects aspects of my culture, but in The Monarch I touch more on relationships than those specific social issues. It’s about the changing responses of women to the disease, from anger to acceptance. Some women choose not to face the diagnosis. Some are super optimistic, and some women commit suicide. In March, when Echo Theatre did a reading of the play, a diverse audience of men and women reacted powerfully to the play. That’s the beauty of the piece—the recognition that cancer doesn’t select certain people based on race or age. Young women and grandmothers can develop cancer.
Many women confronted with a potentially disfiguring disease like breast cancer have talked about how their self-image suffers. Do you speak to that aspect of cancer in your play?
We do address how women facing breast cancer view their bodies through the four different phases in the metamorphosis of the butterfly. Actors play an egg, a caterpillar, a chrysalis and the adult monarch butterfly. During this transformation, the women are trying to be in their bodies again, sometimes with one breast or no breast or new breasts. There are no male characters in the play, but men figure strongly in the play as women try to regain intimacy with their husbands. One woman is not ready for it, and another’s marriage has fallen completely apart.
What has your co-director, Tonya Holloway, brought to the show?
Tonya has a great eye. She’s able to look at the work itself and beyond me and my personal experience. She looks at the characters more objectively, and that lens is invaluable to the process of bringing out the different layers of experience I’m presenting. We’ve been collaborating since we were in college, and I love working with her.
What is Echo Theatre’s role in this co-production?
All I can say is thank God for [Echo Theatre Artistic Director] Terri Ferguson and Elly Lindsay. Elly was my teacher at [Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts], and we’ve stayed in touch. She encouraged me to send The Monarch to the Echo Reads Series. After the reading this past spring, Terri was enthusiastic. She said, “We have dates, we have money and we want to give the play a full production.” They’ve provided the platform, the funding and the media support to get the word out about the play. It’s been a wonderful collaboration with Echo.
Can you comment on the cast you have assembled?
This cast is incredible. [Soul Rep co-founder and co-artistic director] Guinea Bennett is an amazing actress, and during rehearsals she talked about having lost a good friend to breast cancer. Guinea is performing this play in honor of her friend. Monique Williams is a television actress who’s moved back to Dallas from California, and is performing the butterfly in its transformative stage. Morgana Wilborn is director of education at the Dallas Theater Center, and is performing her third show with us this season. Chris Sanders is an enormously talented new graduate of Southern Methodist University. Hopefully Dallas will put her to work, and she’ll stay here. Dallas has a thriving and robust arts community at this time, and it’s wonderful to be a part of it.
What are the implication of the play’s title?
How that came about is actually a wonderful story. After diagnosis, I was sitting outside the hospital in the car. A monarch butterfly came and landed on the window, and I thought, that’s my sign. I’ve embraced the monarch as my spirit creature ever since. I didn’t know at that point that women before me in the pain and transformation of cancer have identified with the butterfly’s journey.
What are you hoping the audience takes away from the play?
I hope those who have experienced breast cancer will walk away inspired by what they have seen. I hope people with friends and relatives dealing with the disease acknowledge and celebrate those women for their strength and courage. Art for me is healing. I’m not an entertainer; there has to be a purpose behind the craft. Theater is sacred for me, and I hope people come with open minds and hearts to the play. It has been a spiritual journey for me. My mind and body have grown stronger through cancer. I’m a better artist and a better person. That’s the gift cancer has given me.