by Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
An artful, multi-media presentation of Alzheimer’s awareness will soon take the stage at Southwest Tennessee Community College, allowing live-stream viewers throughout the Mid-South to post comments as the action unfolds.
“Some Day For a Crown” will be livestreamed Feb. 4 (3 p.m.) before a live audience, with some scenes performed with scripts like the old radio dramas in the mid-1900’s.
The stage production is the creation of local actor and director (an now playwright) Ron Gephart, who reveals the autobiographical journey of his family struggles with caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. The last two years putting the project together and writing the dialogue have been bittersweet.
“My father was 54 years old when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I was in my 30’s, just moving down to Memphis,” said Gephart, a former professor of Speech and Theater at SWTCC. “I broke down and cried many times as I wrote the play, recounting the memories of our father and how we dealt with who he had become.”
Playing the star role as the father is veteran actor and Blues City Cultural Center Executive Director Levi Frazier Jr. His wife, Deborah, plays his wife on stage.
Levi Frazier has drawn on personal experience.
“I remember my grandmother having Alzheimer’s back when I was in my early ‘20s,” said Frazier. “One day, she just opened the door and walked out of the house. She was found miles away. After that, we had to put her in a home to keep her safe.
“In dealing with Alzheimer’s, you begin to realize that no one knows who this person is anymore. And in that knowing, there is an un-knowing. To convey who this father had become, I step out of myself. People don’t know who I am. I will sometimes jump when touched because there is a disconnect from the people around me. I am in my world, and they are in theirs.”
Nearly 6 million people live with Alzheimer’s in the U.S. More than 200,000 have developed it before reaching age 65.
“My father lived with the disease for about 17 years,” said Gephart. “My grandmother, who was about 86, was his first caregiver until she passed two years later. … After my grandmother passed, my mother took over the care of my father with the help of a professional caregiver.”
The first act is set in 1995 when the disease has fully manifested. The grandmother, who is caring for her Alzheimer’s-stricken son, wants to make sure that he gets help immediately because she knows she is dying. In her last moments, she walks out the door, tripping the alarm, knowing that emergency help would not be far behind.
In another heart-wrenching moment, the son is with his father. On a table is an old photo (from 1935) of the father’s second-grade class. The father names every child in the photo and then the son asks, “Hey Dad, who am I?”
The father answers, “I don’t know.”
“What wouldn’t you do to bring back the person that he was, even if only for a few moments,” said Gephart. “It was very emotional writing the play, remembering how it was, reliving those moments. Each time it is staged, the memories can be draining. But so it is for every family who has lived and who presently live with the stark reality of Alzheimer’s.”
The title is taken from the words of a Christian hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross”:
“So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.”
(Performances of “Some Day For A Crown” will be on the Union Avenue campus of Southwest Tennessee Community College. The schedule: Jan. 26, 12:30 p.m.; Jan. 27, 7 p.m.; Jan. 28, 3 p.m.; Feb. 2, 12:30 p.m.; Feb. 3, 7 p.m.; Feb. 4, 3 p.m. (will be live-streamed at www.somedayforacrown.com.)