Tough Choices, Tough Titty

What is there to say? Nearly everyone has known someone who has fallen victim to that most devious and bastardly disease, cancer. Statistically, a good number of us will experience it for ourselves—the fear and uncertainty, the tough and sometimes unfair decisions, the cure that itself slowly eats away flesh stricken and well, the consuming pain and crippling weakness. While scientists are hard at work to find a cure, the simple truth is that right now treatment really is more of an art than a science. Every case is different, every cancer unique, just as every patient is unique. What works for one may not work for another. There is no way to tell who will triumph and who will succumb. And how do you get on with your life when suddenly the illness is your life?

Actress Ami Brabson, who co-produced the show with her husband, Andre Braugher, is the center of this thoughtful and occasionally quite intense piece. She plays Angela, a tough as nails Brooklyn woman in her late 30s with two small children at home—one of them still breastfeeding—a husband who lives something of an alternate professional lifestyle (work as most of us know it just doesn’t work for him) and a soon-to-be-discovered disease. She is a vegetarian, a volunteer, a buyer of organic and earth-friendly goods only. She is decent and she is normal. Until she isn’t.

When we first meet Angela, it’s as an eight-year-old girl in Catholic school plaid. She is confident and funny and knows that she wants to really live her life. The fun is out there; she’s going to find it. She makes a pact with God that until she’s old, like…way old…like older than 20 and even older than 30, He will look in the other directions while she kisses boys and eats candy and gets up to all kinds of trouble. Then, she says, He can look at her again. She’ll be ready.

Ami Brabson & Antoinette LaVecchiaA few moments and 29 years later, Angela is a grown-ass woman nervously pulling down her top so her doctor friend can feel her breasts for bumps. And so it begins, her journey into the cancer abyss. Along the way she has to deal with friends and loved ones who mean well but have no idea how to be supportive. She’ll have to deal with a distant husband whose anger over her sickness and the unfairness of their lives spills over, threatening to wash her away. She has the boys to think about, and her work, and her mother, and the fact that she has become a woman hard enough (and desperate enough) to pluck fallen pills from the piss-streaked sidewalk and drop them in her mouth without the benefit of water to wash them down. She doesn’t have a choice, really. It’s either that or spend the rest of the day in agony trying to play catch-up with the painkillers. There are so many things to do, so many people to take care of. But who’s going to take care of her?

The play, by award-winning playwright Oni Faida Lampley, is a semi-autobiographical one. Lampley lost her fight against cancer in 2008. Her words and voice, however, are still vibrant and live fully through the characters she created. Angela maintains a steely outlook, the sadness of her situation never leading to resignation or a sense of defeat. Whatever this disease throws at her, she will take it in her stride. The same cannot be said of her husband, Shaka (like Zulu, not Khan) who finds her withering body hard to look at and her daily cancer routine hard to accept. You have to wonder how he would do if the sides were reversed and it was his life on the line. How would any of us be in that situation? Those are just a couple of the many, many difficult questions raised throughout Tough Titty. It isn’t an easy play, though it is quite good.

There are a few missteps here and there, mostly due to the space’s restrictions. There is little in the way of a set and only a few random props, so when they are used there’s something a little awkward about it. They stand out more for their presence. The stage to audience ratio is close to 1:1 (I had to step onto the raised stage platform to get to my seat), but several scenes happen to the side of the seating area, which makes it hard to see if you aren’t situated near one of the row ends. Those moments lend the show a rather slapdash quality, but not so much as to get in the way of the story. The limitation of having such a small cast but such a large number of characters also causes a bit of confusion at times. For example, ginger-haired actress Antoinette LaVecchia plays a Russian PA, an Italian saint, a Jamaican nurse and a Southern televangelist, among others.

Ami Brabson & Victor WilliamsThere is a bit of unbalance between scenes, some of which slide neatly from one to another while others require a bit of an awkward pause while everyone takes their places, but a troupe of talented cast members are all on top of their game. Nikkole Salter and Richard Topol stand out in particular, playing multiple characters, as almost everyone does. She brings a coolness and authority to her parts, breaking out the most as a militant self-help author. He is quirky—occasionally silly—and provides the weighty show many of its lightest moments. Victor Williams, as Angela’s ambivalent husband, is both infuriating and pitiful in the role, eliciting sympathy as much as indignation on Angela’s behalf.

It’s a tough place to be, caught between the life you feel you should have had and the one you actually do have. Life is unfair, our bodies betray us, there’s no way to ensure we’ll even be here tomorrow. Sometimes the kind of kindness we receive is just as frustrating and disheartening as none at all. Sometimes the kind of love we have isn’t the kind of love we want. And sometimes we don’t even know how to love ourselves. But it isn’t over until it’s over, and there’s always an opportunity to learn.

Photos by Hunter Canning
1. Ami Brabson and Nikkole Salter
2. Ami Brabson and Antoinette LaVecchia
3. Ami Brabson and Victor Williams

Tough Titty
Written by Oni Faida Lampley
Directed by Awoye Timpo
Playing at the Paradise Factory Theater
64 East 4th Street
Through May 11, 2014

About Marti Sichel (127 Articles)
<p>Marti Davidson Sichel is happy to be a part of such an impressive lineup of talented contributors. She has always loved the capital-A Arts. Some of her fondest early memories include standing starry-eyed at stage doors to meet musical cast members who smiled and signed playbills, singing along to Broadway classics and dancing as only a six-year-old can to Cats. She was also a voracious and precocious reader. The bigger the words and more complex the ideas her books contained, the better — even (especially) if a teacher raised an eyebrow at the titles.</p> <p>Marti’s educational and professional experience tends toward the scientific, though science and art are often more connected than they seem. Being able to combine her love of culture and wordsmithing is a true pleasure, and she is grateful to Woman Around Town’s fearless leaders for the opportunity. A 2014 New York Press Club award winner, Marti finds the trek in from Connecticut and the excursions to distant corners of the theater world as exciting as ever. When she’s not working, you can often find Marti in search of great music, smart comedy and interesting recipes.</p>