“Ask a playwright why they write plays,” they’ll typically respond with something along the lines of, “I write plays because I want to make people feel,” or, “I want to make people think,” or, “I want to initiate a conversation that needs to be had.”
The play How to Bruise Gracefully meets all these criteria.
How to Bruise Gracefully delves into the mistreatment of Black women in American medicine, illustrating both our progress and the vast distance we still have yet to travel. It not only amplifies their voices but also presents a love letter to these women, deeply intertwined with ritual and cultural practices.
This play left me profoundly connected to these women, and to be frank, somewhat triggered. It was far too simple for me to reflect on the instances when I was counseled by a doctor to merely “suck it up.”
“Suck it up. We’re fine. We’re always fine.
And even when we’re not fine,
even when we’re the furthest thing in the world from being fine,
we still gotta say we’re fine.
Because nobody actually cares if we’re fine.”
If there are women who watch this play and are not triggered, I invite you, let’s engage in a conversation. Share your story with me.
The play commences with Vi (Nena Nicole), a young woman at the start of an early morning shift at Burger King, and her straight-talking, wise, and amusing shift manager, Stevie (Chayla Simpson). Simpson’s spirited and honest portrayal of Stevie encompasses everything one could wish for in a friend, and Nicole’s Vi instantly endears herself to the audience.
In the gaps between managing demanding drive-through customers and the tedium of replenishing napkin holders, Vi uses quiet moments to document her thoughts and feelings for her dedicated YouTube followers. Suddenly feeling ill (possibly from greasy tater tots), she faints, and is whisked back in time to be welcomed by three Black women on the Lafayette Plantation: Rose, Magenta, and Fuchsia. Vi joins these Rainbow Women, navigating her own struggles while trying to comprehend her new “reality.”
THE RAINBOW WOMEN
Rose (Monique Develyn Davis) acts as mother and mentor to the other women. Davis’s portrayal of Rose is a beautiful personification of the kind of strong woman anyone would be blessed to have in their life.
“We all get scared till we don’t have a choice.” -Rose
Fuchsia (Tatjana Shields) is younger than Rose and already embittered by what is and what was. She also possesses a strength and courage extending beyond her years. Shields creates such a solid, authentic character that I immediately connected with her passion, sadness, and rage.
“I taught myself to hate children…
And as the stars multiply, I’ve taught myself to hate them too.
Now they can do something I’ll never be able to do.”
Magenta (Alexandra Whitehead), is the youngest and seems to have experienced cruelty at the hands of the doctors the least. However, her youth doesn’t speak to her intelligence. The other women provide Magenta with tough love, even creating games to normalize the pain she’s likely to endure. Whitehead’s Magenta fills the heart with both sorrow and joy while leaving you feeling hopeful for the future.
“I’m going to get to choose [my own path]. Without permission.” – Magenta
Rose, Magenta, Fuchsia, and Vi (short for Violet) are all colors I would use when describing a bruise. The intentionality in Fisher’s play pierces through every detail.
I (MHM) had the privilege to chat with the women of How to Bruise Gracefully: writer Brittany Fisher (BF), actor Nena Nicole (NN), and director Melissa Mowry (MM). All three have been with the project since its initial creation in 2019.
BF: From the very beginning, my promise to myself as an artist has always been to be brutally honest in my work, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable it may be.
MHM: Brittany, the title of the play, How to Bruise Gracefully, is a beautiful turn of phrase. How did you arrive upon it?
BF: I thought about the women represented in the play; their pain and grief and trauma, also the stages of healing. This made me think about bruising. A bruise gets darker before it fades away but the internal pain of how it came to be still exists. Trauma doesn’t last forever but you have to choose not to dwell in it. A bruise will fade away.
MHM: What inspired you to write this play?
BF: In July 2018, I learned about the Pipeline New Works Fellowship where I met with mentors to pitch new ideas for plays. Through the mentorship of the incredible David Lindsay-Abaire, I was able to give story and structure to the chaos happening inside of my head surrounding this painful moment in history.
I have lots of phone notes on random topics. I was looking through my notes and I’d written the name J. Marion Sims. His operations on Black women created medical breakthroughs in the world of gynecology but it came from the suffering of these women essentially because he operated on them without anesthesia.
MHM: What were your goals in taking a topic from the past and relating it to the present day?
BF: My goal was creating characters as a way to explore the stereotypes that have been created about Black women’s bodies, about their pain. I didn’t want people to think, ‘This isn’t about today, this isn’t relevant to me now.’ That is why I added the whole Youtuber dynamic.
MHM: In the age of social media we certainly know more about people and their issues than we otherwise would.
BF: Yes and by meshing the past with the present I was able to explore those issues.
MHM: Issue no one wants to talk about.
BF: I heard a quote recently, “You can’t heal what you don’t talk about.” I think the silence of it all… what perpetuates the pain and the trauma.
MHM: And art has never shied away from pain.
BF: This one play isn’t going to solve all the problems but it is going to get a conversation started. Then maybe someone else will create something on a bigger stage, or on TV, or within film.
MHM: There’s always power in numbers.
BF: If people can start the conversation, even if it’s just a spark of something, then hopefully at some point there can be a raging fire.
MHM: This play makes me hopeful Brittany… and Hope is literally my middle name.
Nena Nicole plays the character of Vi. Nicole embodies Vi as a trustworthy, reliable narrator. Her performance leads with optimism, rather than cynicism.
MHM: Nena, how’s your experience been working on How to Bruise Gracefully?
NN: Nothing but joy. It can be a lot on the soul. Everyone does a fantastic job of keeping a balance.
MHM: The play is described as being “a crash course in survival.” Words like “trauma,” “pain,” and “inner strength” are freely used. When the proverbial curtain goes up till the final bows are taken, that’s a lot for an actor to take on.
NN: It is. Melissa (our director) told us that, in order to protect yourself, you have to tell yourself what the character wants in the scene. So that’s what I always do.
MHM: You portray Vi with so much love and care, like, where does Nena end and Vi begin?
NN: When I was in acting school, teachers would say, “You ARE that character,” but no, I think it’s healthy to have separation. Although, I find it beautiful when the universe aligns. It’s like sometimes Vi is going through exactly what I’m going through right when I’m going through it, and that’s the scary part—things can feel so real sometimes.
MHM: When those lines blur, I imagine it’s tough not to get lost in it.
NN: That’s real. How to Bruise Gracefully is about allowing yourself to feel the colors of the rainbow. It’s about allowing yourself to feel blue or violet or magenta.
MHM: That’s beautiful.
NN: This story really doesn’t milk the trauma. It brings you into the world in a romantic and healing way. You get to sit with these women who come from the same environment but have different stories, different loves.
MHM: And different relationships.
NN: Yes. Their relationships with children and their relationships with the Earth and their relationships with other women and men. To me, it’s bigger than race. It’s a story about how these women have sort of… no, not sort of, they find the joy in telling their stories to each other, and no one shuts them down.
She could coax a lullaby out of a cloud, like something forbidden. – Fuchsia.
MHM: Why do you think it is so hard for us (in real life) to connect or show vulnerability?
NN: Because it is so stifled. In this society, you do what you have to do: you get on with it. Behind closed doors and in dark rooms is the moment where you can let it all out and cry. There is a humanity that is overlooked when it comes to capitalism in society. We have emotions and we feel things, and that is why theater is so important; it puts us back into that balance. Melissa reminds us to “focus on the joy.”
Melissa Mowry is the director of How to Bruise Gracefully. She’s been with it since 2019 when she was brought in to direct the first reading.
MHM: Melissa, as the director, how has the passage of time impacted the evolution of How to Bruise Gracefully? Much has happened between 2019 and 2023.
MM: So much of what initially drew me to the piece still resonates. We’ve gone through the pandemic, we’ve gone through the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve gone through questions about women’s autonomy over their bodies, and so the conversations in a lot of ways felt even more pressing, but at the same time, just as relevant as they have always felt. People ask me when this play is set, and I say, “2018 and the past and the future all at the same time.”
“Why do we always have to live up to the stereotypes?” – Stevie
MM: Brittany’s done a really beautiful job of connecting the history of the medical industry and Black femme bodies to now and the concerns that we continue to have with them. Especially at the intersection of childbirth, so it becomes a very interesting conversation for us to explore about what it means to be a mother, a sister, a woman in culture, and community and society with each other and the implications of what that means.
MHM: The challenges that a piece like this must present… how do you, as the director, maintain an authentically safe space?
MM: When I come into a process, and this is true for me for all my pieces, I start by recognizing that safe spaces exist for very few people. That is the heart and the crux of everything. I encourage my actors to not approach these characters with judgment: there’s no space for pity. I encourage them to find the heart of what the character needs and wants in that moment because that’s what we’re interested in as storytellers and story consumers. I encourage my actors to honor themselves and where they are in that moment. Also, to honor the work that they are doing, especially in a piece that has been extremely difficult.
MHM: And so raw, but I think people in the audience will recognize themselves through this piece. What’s been your experience working with the cast?
MM: It has been so wonderful. I’ve never been in a room where everyone was fighting for a story to be elevated and truthful and honest.
MHM: That kind of support surely makes the hard parts easier.
MM: Yes, and when we find the joy in the play and we live in it, it feels like a homecoming of sorts. We have a group of women, I call them the “Rainbow Women,” who serve as the heartbeat of the play. We also have a small cast of men who make a surprise appearance (Noah Jennings, Derek Gayle, and Andrew Gall). They bring such care and respect for this story.
MHM: What is something you want people to take from the play, whether they are the people that fully understand this world or are just learning about it?
MM: It’s about listening and believing these women first and then allowing them and their experiences to continue to be carried with you so the next time you interact with a woman of color, hopefully, you would greet her with the same kindness, love, and care that you did with the women in How to Bruise Gracefully.
MM: Also, what does it mean about the decisions you make in your everyday life and the policies that you support? What I love about this play is that asking for change doesn’t become the work of me or those women on the stage (as actors or characters). We’re not charged with making a choice for someone else to make a difference.
MM: When the people who are coming to see the plays actually have more connection to and access to the systems that hold us back, I encourage them to reflect on themselves and then what they do with the answers after those reflections—that is the charge.
If you stop and recognize the characters that you experienced on the stage and you think, “Oh man, I need to check myself and my privilege,” then you are a person that has been changed by art. You are a person that is helping to potentially make systems different and more supportive and more inclusive for communities.
MHM: I love that because it frees the art from expectation.
MM: Yes, and it frees Black and Brown art (and art from other communities) from having to fill expectations from a lot of White-focused institutions. So by just allowing us to exist is an act of revolution. It’s an act of resistance. It’s an act of liberation. That in itself is an act of change. That goes across the board from racial lines to gender and sexual identity and orientation lines across every spectrum. The majority should be doing the work and not the ones who are at the mercy of them.
MHM: Preach, Melissa. We hear you.
“Unless we apply pressure, there is no way to stop the bleeding.” – The Black Women of “How to Bruise Gracefully”
How to Bruise Gracefully written by Brittany Fisher, directed by Melissa Mowry. Produced by Cadence Theatre in partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre at the Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse from May 12-21, 2023.