A new one-woman show, playing at The Yard this weekend, details its author’s journey from devout Catholic to chorus girl to successful actress, dancer, and writer. Joanna Rush, whose life story has been lightly fictionalized in the show “Asking for It,” leads the audience through her coming of age in New York City and the traumas, tragedies, and disillusionment that led her to questioning, and ultimately, rediscovering her faith. Laced with humor and wit and spiked with dancing and music, the story is one that will resonate with audiences of all demographics.
Following a youthful flirtation with a career as a nun, Ms. Rush diverged drastically and headed to New York City to pursue life on the stage. Fresh out of high school in New Jersey, her dancing talent landed her a position as one of the famed Radio City Rockettes. From that auspicious start, she went on to a successful acting and dancing career that has included many Broadway and off-Broadway appearances.
However, the former “Outstanding Catholic Youth of the Year” discovered that her strict religious upbringing had hardly prepared her for life outside the cloister, nevermind a life in the theater. Says Ms. Rush, “I had an abstinence-only sex education and I trusted everyone. I thought everyone was good.” She adds, “Sex was bad. Sex was a sin. I was faced with a lot of confusing messages. It was hard to find a way to embrace myself and my sexuality.”
Ms. Rush started to seriously question the Catholic church during the Vietnam War and later, during the AIDS crisis, which took the lives of a number of her close friends.
“After I got divorced and excommunicated, I explored everything from atheism to Zen.” Ultimately, she recognized the value of the education she had received through the theater. “Empathy, acceptance — I learned all that through acting and writing.”
Two-time Tony nominee Lynn Taylor-Corbett, the show’s director, was drawn to the material not only by the uniqueness of Ms. Rush’s story but also by the author’s ability to face diversity with optimism, humor, and hope. “It’s really about climbing out on the other side. Getting to a wonderful place through a difficult passageway,” says Ms. Taylor-Corbett.
The story is told as a series of vignettes that take the audience, among other places, behind the scenes at Radio City Music Hall.
“You learn a lot about what it’s like to really be a Rockette in a charming way,” says Monina von Opel, show producer. “There’s much more to it than meets the eye.” She adds, “The religious part is equally as interesting. She’s had this quite wonderful journey that’s combined the spiritual and the physical.”
Ms. von Opel has brought a number of highly successful theater pieces to the Vineyard, including last year’s “County of Kings” by Lemon Anderson, which went on to be presented by Spike Lee at New York’s Public Theater.
“It’s rare that somebody can write something and perform it. It can be so powerful because if it’s well written and compellingly acted it can be irresistible,” Ms. von Opel says, explaining why she was drawn to Ms. Rush’s show.
Ms. Taylor-Corbett is equally impressed with the diversity of Ms. Rush’s talent. “She’s a consummate performer with a tremendously interesting skill set. She’s a comedienne, an actor, a dancer.” However, what drove the director to the work more than anything was the power of the message and Ms. Rush’s ability to convey her feelings. “She makes you understand what it’s like to walk in her shoes. People come to celebrate with her at the end.”
Both star and director comment that the show seems to have universal appeal. They have been surprised at the number of people of all ages, male and female, who have stuck around after a show to talk about how they could relate personally to the story.
“I think the thing about it is, it’s relative to anyone who has ever felt shame,” Ms. Rush says. “Unfortunately, that’s a lot of people.”
When the two women first started putting the show together they weren’t quite sure how it would end. However, developments in Ms. Rush’s life provided perfect closure for the piece. The woman who has learned to walk through the shame and reconcile the many facets of her life has now found a way to help others. “What makes the show remarkable is Joanna,” Ms. Taylor-Corbett says. “She’s got this huge open spirit.”
Joanna Rush in “Asking For It” Fri., July 23, 6:30 pm, The Yard, Chilmark. Also Sat., times vary. dancetheyard.org; 508-645-9662.
Gwyn McAllister is a freelance writer living in Oak Bluffs.