mental illness affects millions. Nevertheless, it is, for many, a taboo subject — perhaps nowhere more so than in the African-American community, according to three of the principals in a play on the topic opening Friday at Mid-City Theatre.
“Riding Halley’s Comet” is based on true events that describe what life is like living with a parent who suffers from mental illness. Running two weekends, it is being staged in conjunction with Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, proclaimed by the U.S. Congress in 2008.
Playwright Ann McQueen said the script revolves around her troubled relationship with her own mother, largely stemming from her mother’s mental state. In the play, the Mother character is a composite of McQueen’s mother and the mother of actress Idella Johnson, a longtime friend who performs in the play.
McQueen’s character is portrayed by Johnson and the Mother is played by Carol Sutton. Both characters are described as “extensions” of the real-life people they’re portraying, not replications.
“For me, my understanding was that my mother suffered from depression from when I was very young,” McQueen said. “I realized in middle school and high school that it was more than that, but I never had confirmation of a diagnosis. When I was in college, that’s when I discovered that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, manic depression. … It was actually more than just depression.”
McQueen and Johnson met in high school and, as the details of their home situations emerged, they formed a lifelong bond, McQueen said.
“When Idella and I met, it was like a miracle that I met someone who understood,” McQueen said. “There is a major sense of isolation when you have, at home, a parent who is mentally ill.”
Regarding discussion of the issue among family members, McQueen said, “I know many people in African-American families (who) will discuss almost anything ... but when it comes to mental illness, it is like we don’t deal in that. It’s not real. It’s something that you’re acting your way through. ‘She’ll snap out of it when she’s ready to stop acting this way.’ ”
Johnson, whose company, Lioness 23 Theatre Initiative, is making its maiden voyage with this production, had similar observations.
“I can tell you, in the African-American community, this is not something we normally talk about,” Johnson said. “It’s something we like to shy away from, and we like to pretend that it’s something we can fix and control and keep away from those in our daily lives.”
Presenting these kinds of stories, largely from the perspectives of African-American women, Johnson said, is one of the reasons she founded her theatrical company.
“I just don’t think that our stories are being told,” she said. “With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s going to pull back the covers and really dig deep into what’s going on in these homes. And I just think that telling these kinds of stories sheds a little light on the background.”
Sutton, a veteran actor who has starred in dozens of local stage productions, as well as in film and television, acknowledges this is a demanding role for her to play. “I’ve never done a role like this before. It’s a challenge to be true to it. I feel such a responsibility to let people know about this illness,” Sutton said.
In addition to Sutton and Johnson, other cast members include Troi Bechet, Yohance Myles, Cherelle Palmer, Robert Doqui, DC Paul, Keshuna Jones Lee and Martin Bats Bradford. Troy R. Poplous directs.
Immediately following the opening-night production, officials from local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, along with McQueen and members of the cast, will hold an open discussion of the issue with the audience.
To purchase tickets, visit www.midcitytheatre.com or call (504) 488-1460. Proceeds will benefit NAMI New Orleans.