To be a long haul performer; or, if we build it we can thrive

One puff Advair, 1 Singulair, 2 hits of Nasacort, 1 Zyrtec, 2 puffs Albuterol, 1 Benzonate, 3 Ibuprofen, sometimes Tylenol.

In August 2021, I took these medications every day to perform School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play. We were the first Chicago production to do in-person performances with a live audience since March 2020. The show was shut down three days before opening due to the pandemic. There was promise that we’d pick up as soon as the virus “cleared”. 2-3 weeks turned into 16 months.

In March 2020 I also got Covid. After Covid, I got pneumonia. “Congratulations on surviving,” a cardiologist said in a follow up exam. The X-ray looked like my lungs were a sky full of clouds.The pneumonia was worse than Covid. All told, I was in bed for 4 weeks. 

When I was somewhat in the clear a simple walk exhausted me. I felt lousy all the time. I experienced excruciating fatigue and memory loss. At times I forgot what I was saying mid-word. What was once seasonal asthma is now chronic.

“Ya know how Mommy does one thing a day and then is exhausted and has to sleep for hours?” I asked my kids weeks after the pneumonia cleared. They nodded. One daytime activity with them resulted in my returning to bed past dinner.

I saw a general practitioner, a pulmonologist, a cardiologist and a breathing specialist. My lung X-ray shocked the cardiologist. He wondered out loud why the pulmonologist never gave me a breathing test. Clear medical bias was in play. My white stepson had tests and saw specialists when he had breathing issues in the same time period. The first time I felt heard and taken seriously my Doctor was Black.

Every few months I’d get an email from my agent checking my availability for a return to School Girls. The Goodman producers were bringing the show back as soon as it was safe. The first dates came and went. The second dates came in April. Finally, the producers slated rehearsals to begin on July16th with an Aug 2nd opening. 

I said I was available because…of course. “Available” meant determined to finish what I started. Available mentally and physically? I wasn’t sure.

March 2020 was the happiest I’d ever been in a professional context. I never felt such a sense of belonging. I was in a cast of all Black women, directed by a Black woman, in a play written by a Black woman.

16 months later, I am a woman who came close to death and existed from her bed for weeks while two children learned online and a husband worked from home. I’m a woman who delivered 22 online antiracism workshops in the aftermath of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Ahrbery and Botham Jean. I conducted a workshop the same day Breonna Taylor’s murderer escaped accountability. The participants of the workshop were white. I held a moment of silence before I began. I wished I didn’t have to speak at all. 

My sense of hope and what was possible was completely jaded. In March of 2020, School Girls rehearsals and previews were a highlight of my career. 16 months later the show was a painful reminder of how life can annihilate hopes and dreams. When humans make plans, God laughs. I didn’t dare hope again. I didn’t dare believe the show would actually open in August.

It all felt daunting. ”Let me get this straight,” I’d joke, “I’m supposed to leave my house. Everyday. For weeks in a row. Interact with other human beings other than my family. Pack a lunch. Drive a car further than Target. Rehearse. A play. In person. Be out of my house for 8 hours. In a row. Also, be a mom and a wife. Huh.”

I kept thinking to myself, “I want to show up as my authentic self. I don’t want to stuff everything I’ve been through in a box and present my happy-smiley-professional face.

Professionalism is important to me. I like being reliable, on time if not early; an example for other cast members. There have been times though, that I buried parts of myself to maintain that persona.

In 2012, my youngest child, age 2, went into the hospital because of breathing issues. She had to stay overnight and I slept in the room with her. The following day I had the first day of rehearsal for a major show at a major theatre. I couldn’t fathom telling the stage manager I couldn’t attend due to a family emergency. Instead, my husband called off work so he could spend the day with her as they completed tests.

It’s fine that my husband was with her but I wanted to be there as her mother. My baby wasn’t well. Not only did I attend the first rehearsal when I had a kid in the hospital, I didn’t tell anyone about my situation. I felt compelled to appear as if everything was fine.

In order to protect her voice, ingénue Lauren Ambrose skipped Sunday matinees of My Fair Lady on Broadway in 2018. Her co-star; veteran Dame Diana Riggs was not happy.

In an email she wrote:

“I learnt, courtesy of a newspaper, that our leading lady will not be appearing in future Sunday matinees. It is time managements put their audiences first and insist on the old adage, slightly adapted by me, ‘The show must go on — with ALL principals.’” 

“Rigg stood by her statement, complaining about the work ethic of a younger generation of actors, and pointing out that when she did Medea in 1994, she busted a vocal cord in rehearsals and moved on. “There was a note in the spectrum of my voice that I could not hit. No sound would come out,” she said. “So I had to reorchestrate all those speeches and arias to avoid that note. It was a fascinating exercise in learning how to keep going.” Kids these days, with their avocado toast and their functioning vocal cords!

Vulture Magazine

Rigg’s sentiments are a perfect example of what is the expected norm in theatre culture. 

In July I was on WGN radio promoting the show when the host referred to me as “a veteran performer” I thought, “Holy shit, I’m a veteran performer!” I never thought of that before. With School Girls I was also the oldest person in the cast; old enough to be the majority of the casts’ mother. Not a particularly young mom, either. 

My generation of actors bought the “show must go on” bill of goods. We fell for it hook line and sinker. The younger generation isn’t buying it. They boldly protect themselves from an industry that considers actors’ needs last.

I spent the week leading up to rehearsal worried about how I was going to make it through the process. I thought I’d need certain accommodations but was uncertain about making them known. Do I present myself as a COVID long hauler or try to act as if I’m fine; the same gal who rehearsed the show Round 1?

I didn’t want a target on my back so I decided I would address my needs on a case by case basis. I rationalized this by thinking, “Maybe I’ll be fine and I won’t need any special attention.” In truth, I had a looming fear long hauler would show up on my “permanent record”.

“Oh Tania? She’s a long hauler. She can’t handle this role.” The thought sent shivers down my side because it was outside my control.

The first day of rehearsal was joyous yet cautious. After a meet and greet with staff via Zoom, the cast and director turned toward one another.

Lili-Anne, the director, said,

“Let’s check in and see where we are. This is a lot.”

With that statement, she reflected the complexities of our return. She captured how we were on top of the world, living our dreams as Black empowered women making art together. She pinpointed how our hearts shattered when the show shut down. She summoned George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Botham Jean, Christian Cooper and more into the space.

One by one we shared our experiences from the last 16 months. One by one our trepidation turned to trust and we spoke our truth.

“I am physically and emotionally exhausted,” I said as I started a pretty cry; eyes cast upward, light tears. “The past 16 months have been rough. I feel like a completely different person…” Then I spilled the beans as if being that vulnerable was the first thing on my agenda rather than the last. They met me with total support, empathy and love. Speaking my truth from the get go was one of the best choices in self-care I’ve ever made.

The next day, Alden the stage manager whom I’ve known for over thirty years sat next to me at the beginning of rehearsal. “Tania, I want you to know we’ve got you. We don’t want you to ever feel pressure to perform or be at rehearsal. Your understudy is ready. We have your back.”

Now, I was on the edge of an Oprah-level ugly cry. I was moved, relieved and grateful. In one monologue, Alden alleviated my stress. The director and the stage manager set a tone that enabled me to show up as my authentic self.

And I did.

All this happened at the same time Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles were in the news for their self advocacy. Their “audacious” display of self care was inspiring and emboldening. Their bravery held me accountable throughout the process.

What would Naomi do? 
What truth would Simone reveal?

I asked for what I needed. Got it. I made it through. We opened. We had a hell of a successful run.

There’s a moment in the play where I run center stage and scream, “Hey! That’s enough!” to stop chaos all around me. During rehearsal I struggled to produce the sound through my inflamed airwaves. It always came but it never felt guaranteed and it was never the same level as my first round as the character.

On opening night, the moment came and my voice broke through. Not only did I silence the characters on stage, the audience fell dead silent, too. 

My director Lili-Anne said this to me at the opening night party:

“This process has been about you struggling to get back your voice. And in that moment you did it.”

She understood the literal and metaphorical sentiment of what she reflected.

At the end of run, I was down to two medications. I had my normal amount of energy. Fatigue was due to an 8 show schedule cuz an 8 show schedule is hard, yo.

Standing in my truth throughout; being my full self enabled me to be at my most powerful. Through the process, my body sustained me and got me through. Since I admitted from the start that I needed support I was able to pace myself. I gave my body what it needed. I didn’t have to overcompensate and put on a game face. The truth gave me strength and energy.

Moving forward, as artists, as humans, I wish you the same.

The company of School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play on Opening Night

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