(l-r) Actors Richard Gant, Andre Pitre, Dawnn Lewis, Playwright Kosmond Russell, and actors Carlease Burke and Dannon Green pictured following The Marriage stageplay performance. (courtesy photo)
Depicting the ups and downs of mental illness across generational lines is seldom addressed in African-American homes, much less live theatre. Recently, spectators and friends gathered in numbers to attend the NACCP Award Winning stage play: “The Marriage”, starring “A Different World” actress Dawnn Lewis. Held at the West Angeles Performing Arts Theatre, the play sought to shed light on how mental illness impacts families and their loved ones, and the importance of seeking professional help to break the cycle.
In the play, Dawnn Lewis stars as Angelique Charles, a woman who at a first glance seems to have it all together and is setting her sights on love, preparing to move from her home town of Philadelphia to be with her new boyfriend in Los Angeles.
In the first act, Lewis’ character slowly begins to display odd behavior during her going away party, searching for a necklace, which we later find out is part of her coping mechanism.
When Angelique’s father, Cleophus Charles, portrayed by veteran actor Richard Gant comes to her daughter’s apartment, he expresses his disapproval of her decision to move to another state for a man, stating that he’s only at the party to drop off eggs.
Meanwhile, Angelique’s mother, who had been waiting in the car, comes up to the apartment, and that’s when the true familial dynamics begin to unravel. In hopes of receiving her parents’ blessings prior to departing, Angelique takes a moment to speak with her mother in private. Almost immediately, Angelique’s mother, Lucy Charles, played by Carlease Burke, begins displaying quite demure yet unpredictable behavior, going in and out of reality, and from very high to very low extremes in her verbal expression.
Angelique begins to reveal her fears to her mother, sighting that she hated growing up and seeing her suffer from mental illness, and that it was time for her to make a new life her herself in Los Angeles.
As the plot thickens, Angelique finally moves to Los Angeles to be with her true love Mike Demumry, played by actor Andre Pitre. While Mike is vaguely aware that both Angelique and her mother suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, part of him believes he’s equipped to marry the woman of his dreams, and see past her illness. Eventually, the two marry and have one child, the other of which died from miscarriage. Thereafter, the couple struggles to deal Angelique’s illness, especially after she stops taking her medicine.
Led down a path of unbearable outbursts, with frequent changes in personality and an inability to care for herself, Angelique finds herself alone on the street, leaving her family to succumb to her own version of reality. As her aunt, cousin and friends hear wind of her breakdown, they finally locate the psych ward facility where she is being held in Los Angeles. Once Angelique’s parents show up on the scene, we find that they are truly the only parties able to understand her twisted reality.
Like many families of color, mental illness goes without effective treatment or medical understanding. The play’s producer and playwright Kosmond Russell says his goal to bring the issue to the forefront. “Let’s bring this real thing called mental illness out of the darkness and in to the light, let’s be aware, let’s confront it, let’s help,” he stated.
Dawnn Lewis, who’s brilliant character shed much light on the effects of paranoid schizophrenia, said it was the cast and crew that really allowed the story to come full circle. “We stand up and we step up when and for each other, to say this was a labor of love is a huge understatement,” she said.
As for addressing mental illness, Lewis says it’s important to be patient with those who are suffering, to “understand them, encourage them, allow them to get the help that they need”. “Help them to help themselves so that we can all just share nothing but love, growth and positivity,” Lewis added.