Dallas — Sad to say, it’s probably significantly more difficult to find a person whose life hasn’t been touched by breast cancer in some way than it is to find someone with no connections to it whatsoever. So it’s hard to imagine the person who couldn’t find some meaning or relevance in Soul Rep Theatre Company’s production of local playwright and Soul Rep co-founder Anyika McMillan-Herod’s moving The Monarch, based on McMillan-Herod’s experience battling—and thankfully surviving—Stage 3 breast cancer. The quartet of powerhouse actresses in the piece explore the many varied emotional responses to each stage of cancer, from anger to despair to humor and, finally, to hope.
It’s been a bit of winding journey for this piece. With material sourced from McMillan-Herod’s journals during her experiences with cancer, the show was originally performed as a staged reading six years ago in Dallas. The Monarch was then workshopped in 2015 before being performed as part of Soul Rep’s New Play Festival that same year. Excerpts were then performed as part of Echo Theatre’s “Echo Reads Series” in March of this year. Clearly the piece made an impression, given that when a slot in Echo’s season opened up unexpectedly, Echo immediately offered it to Soul Rep, as a co-production.
Co-directing The Monarch are Tonya Holloway, the Co-Artistic Director of Soul Rep, and the playwright herself. In its final form, the piece is a series of 10 vignettes (with a recorded prologue and epilogue), whose characters and settings vary wildly, but whose connecting thread (of course) is women’s experience of breast cancer. The play’s guiding metaphor for how cancer transforms survivors is the monarch butterfly’s life cycle, information about which acts as a framing device for the show and serves as the source of the play’s title and character’s names. Subsisting in its infancy on plant life that’s toxic to other creatures, the monarch enters its chrysalis and emerges eventually as something battle-scarred, but beautiful.
It would be an exercise in futility to try and single out one performer from the piece, as each actress turns in a uniformly excellent and very distinct performance, showcasing different strengths and embodying many different facets of the cancer experience.
Morgana Wilborn (The Egg) offers up several raw performances, notably her initial character’s agonized confrontation of the loss of her breast and a searing monologue as a woman who beat cancer, but whose husband then left her via note. Chris Sanders (The Caterpillar) partners with Wilborn as the nurse fitting her character’s prosthetic who has scars of her own. She scintillates in a monologue regarding post-cancer sexuality, swinging between sensual memories of her past experiences with her husband, and her hope of reclaiming that part of herself as she heals. Monique Ridge-Williams (The Chrysalis) dominates the stage in a sort of self-dialogue (half-spoken, half-dance) with Guinea Bennett-Price (Soul Rep’s Co-Artistic Director) as a sort of warrior alter-ego of a woman spiraling into what ifs after her diagnosis, and later gives an aching turn as “Joy,” who turns to alcohol and shuts out the world after being diagnosed. Bennett-Price has some of the funniest moments. Despite the seriousness of the segment, her turn as Joy’s persistent friend is both natural and hilarious, and her final performance in the solo vignette in “Damn Kale!” is funny enough that it would be criminal to spoil its punchline. An ensemble scene titled simply “Chrysalis,” with recorded dialogue from Sanders, is almost uncomfortably intimate, but beautiful, and the final visual of the four women entwined in a sort of four-person Pieta was arresting.
The set itself is simple, mostly consisting of various configurations of crates and boxes, but executed well (all the performers do double duty, also making their own costume changes and striking and rebuilding the set for each scene, which they managed with only a few very minor hiccups). Elements of traditional African garb, vocalization, and dance are used sparingly, but very effectively, and tie in with the overarching sense of spirituality threaded through the piece. Michelle Graves provides percussion throughout, and despite being essentially onstage with her instruments, is never overpowering.
While the play strives throughout to try and portray different aspects of the cancer experience, and to explore differing viewpoints of women at each stage of the disease and its aftermath, the show’s ending is unabashedly hopeful, with any dissenting views expressed earlier seemingly stripped away.
This may not speak to everyone’s experience with cancer, but the piece is, after all, autobiographical. It’s the playwright’s journey we’re on, and her act of transformation in turning her pain into hope expressed through her art that the audience is invited to witness. A true labor of love and a testament to the talents of the two theater companies who brought it to life, The Monarch not only speaks, she soars.