The power of healing trumps the anguish of pain. Although playwright-performer Donna Jenson might say it differently, her one-woman play, What She Knows—based on her experience surviving incest—does just that, shaping the raw clay of a childhood violated by a broken father and firing it in the white-hot oven of art. Her finished piece glows with the heat of injustice, cooled by a mountain stream of tears. Finally, it is polished smooth by love, self care and healing.
Jenson’s hour-long play, which she has been performing for the last three years at conferences, colleges, and correctional facilities—even a school for young male sex offenders—is a dramatic doorway into a topic most people would rather keep shut. Jenson’s textured performance is all the more captivating because of its music: master guitarist John Sheldon, whose songs have been recorded by James Taylor, composed and sensitively performs a heart-stirring original score.
What She Knows recounts the story of Francie, a young girl growing up in a midwestern family where honesty is subverted and secrecy and denial have honored places at the supper table. On the one hand, the play is the story of a trio of stinging betrayals: a father violating his daughter, a mother’s silence, and a brother’s rejection. On the other, it is the story of a woman’s courage, of a tenacious insistence on truth telling as a path to healing.
“The audience is able to be right there with Francie as a survivor of child sexual abuse,” Jenson explains. “What happened to her, and its impact, is explored through a single story line. Too often people only get fragments of survivor experiences—snapshots and shards that fall short of relating a whole picture.”
From the dark corners of memory and the open space of personal truth, Jenson, who for many years has worked as an organizational and leadership consultant to scores of groups and individuals, is at heart a sister warrior on a mission: to tell the truth about what happens in families where sexual abuse goes unchallenged.
Rich with detail—the audience is easily able to visualize the tidy, ordered home Francie’s mother keeps straightening—to Francie’s own moments of despair and triumph. Backed by Sheldon’s bluesy groove, the pair belt out a crackling verse of “Jailhouse Rock” as the audience identifies with Francie’s unfolding awareness of the dysfunction surrounding her—and celebrates her as she grows in inner strength and personal awareness, ultimately reclaiming her life.
Rather than sending playgoers out into the street after the play, Jenson returns on stage to lead post performance conversations with audience members to explore issues the play raised for them. A mental health counselor is on hand at performances for anyone needing professional support. “The play stirs a lot of emotion, Jenson says. “It’s important to take time, to create safe space to talk together. The dialogues are vital.”
“There’s things I’ve done to others/ And things that have been done to me,” croons John Sheldon performing his ballad, “The Way Through” at the start of the play. “Things I’ve never talked about/ Things that I’ve let no one see/…There are strangers in the road/There might be angels, too/There is no way out, but there might be a way through.” There’s no might about it; What She Knows does offer a way through.
For information about upcoming performances, Sheldon’s CD of music from the play, or booking What She Knows, visit timetotell.org.