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A black family grapples with Alzheimer’s in debut of play ‘Smoked Oysters’

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO

Several years ago, playwright Mary M. McCullough overheard a longtime married couple bickering about why the husband wouldn’t leave the house. McCullough jotted down a few lines of dialogue and put it away. Now, drafts later, that conversation reemerges in the debut of McCullough’s play, “Smoked Oysters,” playing at Greater Egleston High School in Roxbury Monday through Wednesday, Jan. 20–22.

Produced by TC Squared Theatre Company and directed by Deen Rawlins, “Smoked Oysters” is an intimate portrait of a family negotiating unknown waters. Ulysses (Paul Benford-Bruce) is a retired black history professor and is planning a dream vacation with his wife Arnetta (Letta Neely). Both parents are bursting with pride for their successful son Bernard (Zair Silva). But when Ulysses gets lost on a walk home from the zoo, the family’s rhythm is thrown into the chaos and denial that accompany Alzheimer’s disease.

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“This particular disease has no race or economic venue. It can strike anyone in our culture,” says McCullough. “I don’t want people to come away from the play feeling like it’s about Alzheimer’s, because it’s about so much more than just that disease.” Though the illness is the turning point of the show, the family dynamic in dealing with it is the most important element.

McCullough says she didn’t know that Ulysses was showing signs of Alzheimer’s at first, but she knew that something was wrong. In her workshops with TC2 Playwrights Lab, it became clear that neurological forces were at work in Ulysses’ predicament. McCullough used extensive research and her own experiences with friends dealing with the illness to flush out Ulysses’ experience.

The equalizing quality of Alzheimer’s is just one draw in this dynamic portrait. “It’s nice to write a play that has the main characters being older people. And I’m an older playwright. That strikes me as something that is not as common these days,” says McCullough. The characters are also local. “I imagine a community like Roxbury or Mattapan, a neighborhood. Theoretically, I set it somewhere near the zoo.” Though the themes and emotions of “Smoked Oysters” are universal, the audience, sitting in the walls of Greater Egleston High School, could be just steps from Ulysses’ and Arnetta’s home.

Above all, McCullough hopes the characters and their challenges speak to the audience. She says, “I hope they come away with a sense of what it’s like to be a loving family dealing with a difficult situation and knowing that you can persevere. You do survive.”

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