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1918 themes in ‘Joy and Pandemic’ resonate

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
1918 themes in ‘Joy and Pandemic’ resonate
Stacy Fischer (left) and Breezy Leigh. COURTESY PHOTO

“Joy and Pandemic,” playing at The Huntington, centers on the 1918 flu pandemic, but it feels intimately familiar. Playwright Taylor Mac began this concept well before COVID-19 turned the world upside down, but the performance has only become more relevant in its wake.

The narrative follows Joy (Stacy Fischer), a Christian Science member who runs an arts school and Marjorie (Breezy Leigh), the mother of one of the school’s talents. As the 1918 flu pandemic rages, the two butt heads about what measures should be taken. Decades later in the 1950s, the daughters of both women (played by the same actors) revisit the school and their pasts.

Director Loretta Greco and playwright Taylor Mac. COURTESY PHOTO

The performance probes the tension between belief and science, comfort and reality and the place where art fits into that picture. This 30-year period of history covers the flu pandemic, the advancements of the Industrial Revolution, Reconstruction and the advent of Jim Crow laws. For Leigh’s characters Marjorie and Melanie, the circumstances are always looked at through their lens as Black women.

“Being a part of those marginalized groups informs a lot about how you were defined in this world and the challenges that you’ll have to face,” says Leigh. “I think that there’s a level of being a Black woman in this society in 2023 where we find ourselves grappling with a lot of the same questions that we were grappling with in 1950 and grappling with in the 1910s.”

Though there are many important and heavy topics in the show, it’s told with a lot of comedy and levity. The world premiere production is particularly at home here in Boston, the location of the Christian Science Mother Church and the Mary Baker Eddy Library. The show runs at The Huntington through May 21.

There’s a lot to unpack in “Joy and Pandemic,” but it reiterates many of the lessons learned during COVID-19. Audience members won’t have to relive their own pandemic trauma-. Mac is careful to avoid those triggers, but they will have to reflect on what it meant for our shared humanity.

“Having grace for your neighbor amidst these crazy times is paramount because life is hard and you do not know what the next person is going through,” says Leigh. “That’s one thing that I definitely want the viewers to take away. And another thing is in times of wild ridiculousness and uncertainty, we can laugh. We can cry too, but we can laugh.”

1918 flu pandemic, huntington theatre company, stage drama