By Maureen Smith
MADISON – In honor of the 25th anniversary of the death of Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Diocese of Jackson is sponsoring a staging of the play “Thea’s Turn.” The show was written by Mary Queen Donnelly, a childhood friend of Sister Bowman.
Sister Thea Bowman was a Mississippi native who rose to national prominence with her tireless campaign to promote diversity in the church. She used her own experience of learning about and embracing African American culture to teach that each ethnic and racial group has gifts to offer the church. Sister Bowman used song, storytelling and her extensive education to deliver her message.
The play is a retelling of Sister Bowman’s life. Donnelly said she wanted to portray the conflict Sister Bowman faced and overcame when she tried to reconcile her rich African American cultural background with her desire to be a nun in an all-white, traditional Catholic community. Sister loved her culture and her church. The conflict takes the form of arguments between the adult Sister Thea Bowman and the child Bertha Bowman. “It’s sort of a conflict we all have,” explained Donnelly. The play also features two choirs, a gospel choir and a choir singing pre-Vatican II style liturgical music.
“It’s not a musical, but it is filled with music, because Thea was. She would sometimes burst into song, even during interviews,” said Donnelly. Donnelly said Sister Bowman did not want a blend of African-American and white cultural experiences, she wanted both groups to appreciate and celebrate the other. She wanted people of all racial and cultural backgrounds to recognize their unique ways of worshipping, singing and living and share that diversity with others.
“I just think it’s a great story. I like the way Mary (Donnelly) juxtaposes the solemn, formal worship practices of the church with the praise and hands-in-the-air style worship of Southern Baptist or other Southern churches,” Director Chris Roebuck, education director at New Stage Theater said of the play. He said he considers all of his actors storytellers and wants the process of staging the play to be a collaborative effort. “I want them to find the reality and truth in the story and play that,” he explained.
Roebuck held local auditions to fill the roles in the play, saying he would be looking for people who can embrace the spirit of the show.
Donnelly and Bowman grew up in the same town, Canton, but lived very different lives. Bowman was the only child of a modest black family while Donnelly was one of six children in a white family. The girls knew one another from attending Holy Child Jesus Parish together, but did not stay in close touch after Donnelly left to attend boarding school in New Orleans and Bowman left to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The two reconnected years later when Sister Bowman was in New Orleans to teach at Xavier University’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies. Donnelly was a columnist at that time for the New Orleans Times Picayune. Sister Bowman already had cancer and although she was keeping up with a busy travel and teaching schedule, she had to rest often during her trips to keep up enough energy to give her presentations.
“I asked my editor if I could write a feature about Sister Thea,” said Donnelly. “I spent three days with her. You didn’t just interview Thea – you followed her!” said Donnelly with a chuckle. She attended the classes Sister Bowman taught, went to liturgies with her and sat at her bedside when Sister Bowman was exhausted from her activities.
“She really wanted me to hear her story. She knew her time was limited,” said Donnelly. After she wrote her story, Donnelly continued to keep in touch with her friend from childhood.
After Sister Bowman died, Donnelly wrote several remembrances of her, including one for America Magazine. The play came later, at the suggestion of Sister Bowman’s long-time caretaker Sister Dorothy Ann Kundinger, FSPA. “I tell stories in dialogue. I had so many interviews with her. I felt this urgency in Thea,” explained Donnelly. “I thought Thea wanted to be on stage. She was such a dramatist,” she added.
Much of the dialogue is quotes from Donnelly’s interview notes. “I used her words. Most of the play is from private conversations,” she said.
The play has been performed in New Orleans, New York and won a new play competition at the New Stage Theater in Jackson. Some of those performances were just staged readings, but the one in New Orleans was a complete play.
“I learned of the play several years back when it was featured in New Orleans. I caught it there and it was amazing,” said Will Jemison, coordinator for the Office of Black Catholic Ministry. “I think it’s great that the diocese Sister Thea served in will finally have a chance to feature her and educate a new generation about her steadfastness of faith, in spite of so many challenges,” he added.
Donnelly is also thrilled to bring the play to Sister Bowman’s home diocese. The playwright has moved back to Canton and is glad to be closer to the community where she grew up.
Sister Thea has been gone for 25 years, but Donnelly said her legacy is an important one. “I think she has a big message for people. We need her.”
One of the themes Donnelly thought was so important to Sister Bowman’s work was that each individual has a gift to offer. It might be why the nun loved the song ‘this little light of mine,’ which plays a role in the production. “People think they have to do big things, but everyone has a little light they can shine for humanity,” said Donnelly.
Thea’s Turn will be staged at the Fine Arts Center at Madison St. Joseph High School Friday and Saturday April 10-11, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 12, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and can be reserved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.