Throughout October there are a number of breast cancer awareness initiatives that are centered around sharing stories of hope, resilience and healing. We’re big fans of taking the awareness beyond designated days and months to allow awareness to become something that is part of our everyday consciousness. That is exactly what artist and performer Cheray O’Neal is doing with her new one-woman show ‘Journey This’.
The award-winning writer and NAACP Image Award Nominee performer debuted the show on October 12th at the Lounge Theater in Hollywood, which she created as a philanthropic event in association with the American Cancer Society and Lyrical Hair. Proceeds from the run of the show be gifted to Making Strides Against Breast Cancer named in honor of her mother, Patti O’Neal, who she lost to breast cancer at a very young age. Knowing first hand the impact cancer has on family, Cheray also donated a brand new synthetic wig from Lyrical Hair for every ticket sold to help women coping with hair loss.
‘Journey This’, directed by Marlene Forte, is a solo dramedy that weaves the experiences of three generations of women into a tale of connections which reveals that the power of love, choice and forgiveness lies in your own hands. The one-woman stage play is a humorous soul searching odyssey that raises the question “just who is responsible for one’s happiness?”
Inspiring, controversial, with a daring message of female empowerment, Cheray portrays both male and female characters ages ranging from 6 to 80 with ease. In homage to legacy, memories and reclaiming one’s worth, the performer’s universal tale takes the audience on a unforgettable ride. The play is not only timely but extremely relevant within today’s political, cultural and social landscape.
The issues Cheray tackles focus on various aspects of life and cover topics that are making headlines news: multi generational relationships, impact of absent fathers on daughters, mental illness, managing grief, sexual abuse, health and wellness, self empowerment and self love, making a footprint in this world doing what you love, to name a few.
Because we live in an era of disconnect where our self worth is monitored by likes on a social media post, there’s a real need for connection, love and truth. Cheray’s grandmother and mother’s generation had that. Her goal now is to connect all the generations, and still maintain a position of self-identity. She also plans to take the show around the country after November so we spoke with her about the themes in her show and how she hopes the message and themes she explores will be relevant to a wide audience.
How did the idea for ‘Journey This’ first come about?
The life and death of my grandmother Rubie Johnson, who lived to be 92 yeas old and vote for a black president twice, who loved life, and suffered greatly. One of the most amazing, strong, willful, courageous woman I’ve ever known, she lost everyone, her mother, husband, daughter and still managed to smile every morning, that was fascinating to me.
When she died, I was left with this feeling of what was my purpose , what was going to be my legacy, how do I lay my footprint down in this world, who and what do I want to surround myself with. What’s really important in this life. I wrote this piece as a love letter to my mother and grandmother and a strong need to answers these questions. The pain stops with you! It ends right here and now. Grateful that I made it to the other side I am not the sum of my tragedies but the greatness of the journey , that’s why I call it ‘journey this ’
There is a strong inter-generational story woven into the narrative of this show. Can you talk us through why you chose to look at themes of love and forgiveness through different age groups?
Multi-generational shows really resonate with people right now. ‘This Is Us’, ‘Red Table Talk’, even ‘Modern Family’, ‘Transparent’, ‘Shameless’, we could go on. We’re living in an era of disconnect where our self-worth is monitored by the number of likes on a social media post. I feel like there’s a real need for connection, love, and truth. My grandmother’s generation had that. I want to connect all the generations and still maintain a position of self-identity. That’s part of what this play is about. It’s about breaking family cycles and finding your own place in the world, but it’s also a love letter to family and the power of forgiveness.
There are gems worth passing on and there are things we need to break. This play is in itself breaking that cycle, especially when you’re dealing with stoic womanism and the whole idea of women being superwomen and handling everything. There’s a line in the play, “I wonder what your mother and her mother and her mother passed on in the womb. It matters what mothers carry in the womb and what the child absorbs. We’re talking about generations of womb passing. There’s pain and love being passed on and you really have to honor what works for you right now and follow through with that.
Love and forgiveness will carry you to eternity. These are not for the other persons healing, its for your own. Kinda like masking yourself before your children when the planes about to crash. We must take great care of ourselves and in my opinion that entails digging deep into you and pulling out that fundamental darkness, looking at it, calling it by its name and than releasing it, or as you say forgiving or loving it. Once you do that, truly do that, the pain has no more power over you, and love allows you expansion and courage.
Some of the topics you cover in your one-woman show are mental illness, sexual abuse, which are extremely timely right now in politics and entertainment. How do you hope your show will shed light on and encourage dialog around these issues?
It’s funny when you say timely, because your absolutely right, it’s coming out all over the place. But the truth of the matter is, it’s been happening since the beginning of time, the only difference is now people, woman more specifically are speaking up and given a platform to do so. The show is one of my platforms. I’m hoping the show gives people permission and freedom in their lives to find their truth, talk about it and ultimately heal. Time is short and precious, share you truth, that’s where the healing begins, you are not alone, be apart of something greater than yourself, you can be a ripple and make a change. “The pain and fear stops with you”.
The idea of a one-woman show makes us nervous thinking about all the work and memorizing that must go into this! Can you talk us through your creative process, and why you chose this format?
In the beginning it scared the living daylight out of me, but like with everything, truth is relentless, you can’t hide from yourself. I’m an actor who has something to say. I couldn’t wait for someone to tell my story nor cast me in something of substance, it was a natural choice. challenging but necessary for my own sanity. The short version is I was really unhappy, depressed and struggled with my self worth.
My only remedy I knew to even begin to address this ache was to write. So I did. As an actor, I had the perfect script for me, because I knew all these characters as they came straight from my DNA. Yes there are a lot of lines, 1 hour and 5 minutes to be exact. I play 9 different characters , ages 6-88, male and female. Its beautiful and challenging all in the same breathe.
My preparation is very unique. For each character I figure out their walk, voice and body language. Once that is established the words that I wrote come easy. As an exercise, I utilize repetition and daily practice. Since I approach it from a holistic angle, breath is also very important. I engage in an athletic activity like cycling, yoga, basketball, hiking and go over the lines out loud. Character work comes from dissecting the characters needs first and foremost, past history, colors, tone of voice and then what is stopping them from getting their needs met.
After vocal and body warm ups, In my dressing room, I listen to vocalist like Nina Simone, Etta James, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughn. This show is so much about legacy and passing the torch, I always want to honor where I come from and the hard work my ancestors put in so I could be here freely telling my story.
Performing it is the most amazing act of self love, I’ve ever done, besides taking care of my grandmother, which taught me on an experiential level the true value of patience, compassion, selflessness, and courage.
I love the power of live theater and the opportunity to create new with each performance. Every single person in the audience is there for the ride, its exhilarating.
We’re all about seeing more of the female gaze in TV and film. Do you see a huge need for this in the theater/live performance world as well? And why is the female gaze important?
The female gaze is vital, that’s whats needed in our political and world view systems. Woman are naturally compassionate, and dialogue driven, we are caregivers and nurturers’ I’m not saying men aren’t, Im saying woman on a whole are. The world needs more female driven empowering stories, truth tales are what’s going to heal this world. Storytelling featuring a woman’s true multi dimensional perspective, no matter what medium, film, tv or theater is essential.
Proceeds from your show will benefit a breast cancer organization. Tell us about the organization and what the money will go toward.
I’m so honored to be partnered with the American Cancer Society and Lyrical Hair, which is a wig manufacturing company. I lost my mom to breast cancer, so I know first-hand the impact cancer has on a family, the ‘survivor’ mentality. I really respect the American Cancer Society for their holistic approach to healing because it really takes a village, it takes family. Of course it takes the medical aspect, but there’s also a spiritual aspect to it, an emotional healing aspect to it, and the American Cancer Society tackles this disease on that holistic front. So I really am honored to work with them.
The wig company really believes in this project, so we’ve all come together to provide this beautiful experience, which is that with every ticket sold, a wig will be donated in your name to a woman coping with cancer. Not only that, 10% of the proceeds of the final run of the show will go right back into making strides against breast cancer in my mother’s name. So for me, it’s a truly full circle moment because I’m able to take my craft and mix it in with activism, passion, and purpose to create this whole experience for people. They get to see this play and be of service to someone else with intention and money.
We have free tickets too! Cancer survivors, volunteers with the American Cancer Society, as well as some young students of color who can’t afford a ticket will be able to take advantage of those.
Finally, what makes you a powerful woman?
The fact that I can cry and forgive and it be a sign of strength.