After playwright and actress Tania Richard’s father died of lung cancer and her mother was hospitalized with dementia in the span of six weeks, it was obvious there was only one way to proceed.
She had to share the experience. It was so sad, so shockingly sudden, such a series of bombshells.
“My sister and I, we deal with stuff like that with humor,” explains the Evanston resident, who has turned the experience into a play called Truth Be Told, opening at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre this Saturday.
“I couldn’t keep up with telling people these stories and blowing their minds,” says Richard, who stars in the one-woman show. “It was like, there’s clearly no other option here. This story needs to be told.”
While Richard has written several plays based on her life before, Truth Be Told is the first one that’s entirely autobiographical. She describes the solo show as a “tragomedy” that will leave the audience both laughing and crying.
Richard and her sister, both of whom now live in Evanston, grew up in Western Springs, where their parents were still living in the sisters’ childhood home before they became sick. Both Richard’s mother and father emigrated from Haiti, then went to medical school in Canada before coming to the Chicago area, where her father practiced as a general surgeon and her mother as a gynecologist.
Growing up, Richard says her parents kept a beautiful home, and once their daughters were out of the house, regularly had their families over for dinner. But within the past five years before her father passed away, things began to change, says Richard. Her mom’s behavior was odd—sometimes insulting—and she stopped inviting her daughters over.
“I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be in the neighborhood, can I stop by?’” Richard explains. “She’d be like, ‘Oh, when are you coming?’ I’d be like, ‘I don’t know, when are you going to be home?’ She’d be like, ‘Oh, when are you coming?’ Then I’d tell her what time, and she’d be like, ‘That’s when we’re going to be gone.’”
“I used to make jokes—what are they, in weekend jail?” Richard adds. “What is going on?”
Eventually she and her sister began showing up at their parents’ house unannounced, where they discovered that it had fallen into disrepair. At some point, the basement had flooded, and her parents had never pumped out the water. Mold was growing on the walls, and their father had developed a cough.
“It’s a mystery to us, when did it exactly happen that everything just stopped and they sort of stopped living and they were just in the house?” says Richard.
It was obvious that something was wrong with their mother’s mental health, and Richard and her sister focused on getting help for her. They discovered their father was sick, too, after Richard’s sister showed up announced following a six week period when neither Richard nor her sister had seen their parents.
“He had lost all this weight, his cough was just unbearable to listen to,” says Richard. “That was when it all just came crashing in.”
Despite the fact that their father was a doctor, Richard and her sister had to drag him to the hospital, where he was eventually diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. He passed away within a month.
Meanwhile, Richard’s mother’s dementia had begun to get significantly worse, to the point where she wasn’t taking care of herself anymore. Richard and her sister decided to place her in a nursing home.
With their parents out of the home, Richard and her sister finally had full access to their childhood home in Western Springs. What they discovered was shocking—not just inside the house, but about their parents.
“Having to describe that in the play, having to write that was incredibly painful because it’s just a very detailed sequence and it is so shocking what become of that house,” Richard says.
While the play can be upsetting at times, Richard hopes those parts will cause people to think, to consider what they might not have fully examined in their own lives.
“I almost think of it as a cautionary tale in a way, about how far things can fall if you don’t live your life with truth,” says Richard. “I want to tell this story to shake people up a bit.”
Richard’s ability to make audiences think was what attracted Fleetwood-Jourdain artistic director Tim Rhoze, who signed on to the play before she had even written it.
“She has an economy of words and language, and she has the ability to bring things to the core of truth,” says Rhoze.
He and Richard first worked together during Fleetwood Jourdain’s 2011 season, when she did a dramatic reading of a play called Selecting Memory, based on the early death of her third sister. When she told Rhoze about what was going on with her parents—and the fact that she was considering writing about it—he said he wanted to put the finished piece in the summer 2012 season.
“It wasn’t written then, so I just dug in,” says Richard, who began writing as the events in the play unfolded, and finished within three to four months.
Asked what her parents would think of the finished product, Richard laughs.
“I think they would be horrified,” she says, explaining that they were very private people who raised her and her sisters to be very private, too—to a fault.
But, she adds, while the play is her parent’s story, it is also hers “because I was their daughter.”
“No matter how hard it is, it is just the truth, and there should be no shame,” she says.