All That She Carried

Cadence Theatre Company’s world premiere “How To Bruise Gracefully” explores little-known history to relate the stories of Black women.

In the world of medicine, few figures are more controversial than Dr. J. Marion Sims.

Sometimes referred to as “the father of gynecology,” Sims pioneered medical advances, but developed his surgical techniques by operating on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. Once revered, Sims now holds a much more complicated space in medical history.

The stories of the women Sims operated on are explored in Cadence Theatre Company’s new play “How to Bruise Gracefully,” which opens tonight at the Dominion Energy Center. The play is produced in partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre.

Written by Brittany Fisher, the show focuses on Vi, a young YouTube personality who works at Burger King. At work one day, Vi collapses and is transported to a waiting room in an alternate dimension where she’s able to speak with three women undergoing operations.

For Nena Nicole, who plays Vi, this role has been more than four years in the making. The 23-year-old Richmond native first played her part during the play’s original staged reading in 2018; tonight, the first full production of the play debuts.

“It’s about a girl finding her voice in the past, present and future, ultimately,” Nicole says. “She grows into this understanding of herself and her world without other people telling her [what to make of it]. It shows the love and the pain that these women go through.”

Through Vi’s conversations, she learns about care, community, motherhood and Black sisterhood.

“It’s a love letter to Black women and the things that they have to overcome, the things they have created, their communities,” explains Melissa Mowry, the show’s director. “It’s been incredible to watch the project grow and morph over the last four years, being able to discover these incredible women’s voices, as well as learn from each of the casts that we’ve gotten an opportunity to work with.”

Mowry lauds the playwright for highlighting the voices of Black enslaved women, a group whose narratives have historically been neglected.

“Brittany has this mastery of language and imagery,” Mowry says. “She really is able to capture the hearts of everyone, so whether you know these women or not, you feel for them and you understand them because they speak in ways that are so universal to everyone.”

Fisher, the playwright, was born and raised in Richmond. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from James Madison University, she moved to New York City to attend the The Julliard School. Still based in New York, Fisher says much of her work surrounds race and identity.

“Bruise” was developed through Cadence’s Pipeline New Works Fellowship Program, which is overseen by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. The Pulitzer winner has a longstanding association with Cadence, and his Broadway musical adaptation of his play “Kimberly Akimbo” recently received eight Tony nominations, including Best Musical.

Fisher first encountered Lindsay-Abaire while she was working as a production intern on Cadence’s 2017 staging of his play “Rabbit Hole.” Cadence’s production starred Chris Lindsay-Abaire, David’s wife; Chris told Fisher that she should apply to Julliard and reach out to David, who teaches at the school. Fisher didn’t at the time, but now enjoys being his mentee.

“David Lindsay-Abaire has been a wonderful, wonderful mentor,” Fisher says. “‘How to Bruise Gracefully’ would not be what it is without his guidance in the beginning stages. I really loved working with David, and getting to work with him again at Julliard was even more of a gift.”

Researching this period of history was “heartbreaking,” she says.

“People need to know the story of these women and Dr. Sims, and how that plays into today,” says Fisher, who is Black. “Black women, when it comes to health care, are often not listened to. Their pain is often dismissed. It’s not something that’s really being talked about on any sort of platform, and that’s what drove me to write this play.”

Cadence Theatre Company’s “How to Bruise Gracefully,” runs May 12-21 at the Dominion Energy Center’s Gottwald Playhouse, 600 E. Grace St. For more information, visit cadencetheatre.org or call (804) 233-4894.

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