I know what it feels like to not want to take a shower for three days. I know how the aches and pains of depression make you crawl into the fetal position and want to close out the world. I am bipolar, so the story of Diagnosed, a world premiere musical with book by Iyona Blake and music and lyrics by Greg Watkins was one I could personally relate to.
In Diagnosed, which played last weekend only at Theater Alliance, Iyona Blake portrays an abused young mother who spends 14 days in a psych ward with no outside contact with her family. Blake gives a spot-on portrayal of a person grappling with mental illness. A post-show talkback that followed the show felt like a group therapy session as Blake and many others in attendance revealed the trauma that they had survived and their experience with therapy.
Indeed, Diagnosed is theater therapy at its finest. Setting the mood as you walk in was a laid-back jazz band conducted by the show’s composer and lyricist Greg Watkins. Watkins soothed the audience with Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” setting a soulful scene and lulling the audience into a meditative mood.
As the show begins, we see Penny Mitchell – played by Blake – subdued with wrist restraints in a psychiatric ward bed, not remembering how she got there, but angry and defiant as hell. Enter her therapist Anita Samuels played to a calm and compassionate ‘T’ by Tauyna Ferguson, who quickly puts her on notice that until she calms down and demonstrates that she is not a danger to herself or others, she is going to remain shackled to the bed.
As the book writer, lead performer, and vocal powerhouse behind Diagnosed, Iyona Blake takes us through Penny’s past traumas as she recounts painful childhood events to her therapist and doctor. We learn that while living with her grandmother, Penny learned to harness her pain through the power of Gospel music.
Penny describes the ritual of dressing for Sunday church, discovering her gospel voice from grandma’s testimony and song. Penny’s musical interludes throughout the show are the bridge that keeps this two-hour performance moving, as she repeatedly sings the painful refrain, “I’m not crazy, I’m broken.” Watkins’ songs feature soulful, spiritual lyrics set to gospel and neo-soul music.
Theater Alliance Artistic Director Raymond O. Caldwell directed the show as part of the Word Becomes Action Festival. Caldwell described Diagnosed as a work in progress. The simple set featured a spartan hospital setting with a bed at center stage, a work table, and whiteboard where the therapist kept Penny’s timeline, and a washbasin.
Diagnosed ran a full two hours without intermission. It could benefit from shaving down a few scenes, including one fantasy courtroom scene that didn’t quite work for me. That said, Diagnosed will tug at the heartstrings and resonate with all who are taking therapeutic steps to selfheal inter-generational trauma.
“Mental health awareness requires the bravery to find the inner strength to deal with your demons,” Blake shared in the post-show talkback. Her takeaway resonated with everyone present.
Running time: Two hours with no intermission.
Diagnosed played August 15-18, 2019 at the Word Becomes Action Festival at Theater Alliance at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place, SE, in Washington DC. For information on future Theater Alliance shows, go online.