To be diagnosed is one thing—to accept it is another. In playwright and actor Iyona Blake’s new work (this is the first production; it is a work in progress) this is one of the issues she explores and it is central to the show—how does one get diagnosed and then not just become the diagnosis? Particularly in one’s various communities, where one can be a daughter, sister, mother, friend, artist, colleague, church-goer—how does one retain their full personhood?
. . . this work has good bones and a lot of truth to tell.
Why is mental illness still so horrifying to so many? If someone has cancer, we don’t say to ourselves, oh, she’s cancer. But with mental illness, that can become the default—oh, she’s depression. Or biopolar. Or schizo-affective. Or whatever. It’s as if society’s dread compresses everything into that one diagnosis.
As Blake explores in her play, that almost knee-jerk reaction hits hard in the African American community. Well-meaning, if frightened, people ask: “Have you been going to church?” “She needs hands laid on her.” “She needs to give herself over to the Lord.” It’s not that simple. That is one thing that Blake’s play explores very well—the difficulty of finding room for the illness in the whole of one’s life without disappearing into the diagnosis.
“Diagnosed” starts with a woman (Iyona Blake as Penny Mitchell) waking up in a hospital bed, restrained to the bed rails. There is panic and fear as the reality sets in. I think, particularly for African Americans, there is a visceral reaction to being restrained physically; it’s disorienting and terrifying for anyone, but for a group that has faced centuries of slavery and oppression, it’s cruel. Even if it’s sometimes necessary to prevent harm to oneself or others, it’s not conducive to rational or calming thoughts. She has tried to kill herself, even though she denies it at first.
We spend 14 days in the hospital with her as she battles her therapist and herself—she has a lifetime of abuse and pain to face and start dealing with. This is a hard journey to watch, but Blake’s play deals with the hard work of unpacking the past and bringing it into the light.
We witness as she relives the sexual abuse by an older cousin when she’s just seven years old over the course of a summer; at that so tender age, he references her bee stings under her dress and tells her she’s a woman now. As with most abusers, he also frightens and shames her into silence. And since so many African American children, particularly girls, are sexualized by society at a younger age than other groups, it’s a heartbreaking reminder of how society blames victims.
The play also explores other traumas—a father than couldn’t be bothered, a mother that gave her to her grandmother to raise (the grandmother seems like a hardworking rock for the child, even if their financial situation is somewhat precarious); a childhood friend whose mother died in a mental institution; and other traumas. The message was clear from everyone—it was her fault for not being good enough, not being spiritual enough, just not being enough. “Diagnosed” captures the exhaustion of always trying to be enough.
At times during the play, as Blake unpacks another object from a memory box, she sings the trauma associated with it. It’s a high point to hear that magnificent voice soaring with such truths.
The play has some very funny moments as well. When her therapist (Taunya Ferguson as Dr. Anita Samuels), the only other character, insists on introducing her to meditation, it stops Penny in her tracks; as she says, “Black people don’t meditate.” She says it with such conviction and shock it just rings true—hysterically true.
This is a work in progress and there were some passages that were a little too much like someone reading out of a textbook—particularly when Anita was talking about coping strategies. And two hours and 15 minutes without an intermission was hard on the audience—it’s just a long time to sit.
But this work has good bones and a lot of truth to tell. Even in “Next to Normal,” for instance, the white protagonist had support from her family and friends; she had guilt over “letting them down,” but there was still love and support. As Blake shows in this piece, that isn’t always there for African Americans, and that can kill people.
As Penny Mitchell, Blake was raw and heartbreaking. Tracing her journey to at least the beginnings of reintegration and taking back her voice and uniqueness is a gift in compassion and acceptance. When she writes a letter to her abuser at the end, her new-found strength shines through, the more so as she realizes this is a journey, and the goal is not to be fixed to other people’s expectations or specifications, but to her own. With some work, this can be an even more powerful and timeless work. I look forward to seeing the next iteration.
Greg Watkins is the composer and lyricist; some of the songs are haunting, and singing unmiked in an intimate space seemed easy for Blake—her voice never faltered and the clarity was impeccable.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with no intermission.
“Diagnosed,” produced by Theater Alliance, at Anacostia Playhouse, Washington, DC, is part of the Word Becomes Action Festival III: A festival of past, present and future. For more information, please click here.