“Unforgettable” is a touching stage play that shows the ripple effects of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. We spoke with singer and actress LeJuene Thompson, who plays the family matriarch, Mama D, who is living with Alzheimer’s.
Lejuene, tell us about “Unforgettable” and your role.
We have such a colorful cast in this multi-layered production. I love that “Unforgettable” represents so many walks of life. I play the mother, affectionately known as Mama D. The matriarch of the family, Mama D is a loving mom to her naturally-born son, Brian, and a mother figure to many of his friends. Mama D is a no-nonsense, loving mother who is very strong in her faith.
Mama D is also a retired teacher, and Brian follows in her footsteps by becoming a professor at a local university. When she becomes aware that something is going wrong with her memory, the audience begins to see Mama D’s vulnerability. In one scene, she says, “This body is getting confused.” She knows there are things happening that don't align with the natural aging process, and she is worried. When she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Brian becomes her primary caregiver, balancing his work, marriage to wife Mia and raising a son of his own.
Mama D’s layers are very colorful, but we see that strength diminish in the face of the disease. There is a noticeable difference in her tenacity at the top of the show versus the end. Our director Garret Davis has done a masterful job in telling the story of this complex, strong woman.
When our show came to Charlotte, North Carolina, my three sons came to see it, and they talked about the personality traits I share with Mama D. When they were growing up, their friends would often stay over; most weekends, I’d be stepping over sleeping kids, with half of the football team at my house. There were a lot of parallels to my own life experiences, including how Mama D mentors Brian’s best friend Scottie, who becomes homeless after his father dies.
When children in the community do not have an advocate, they will often travel to the homes of friends for a warm meal, or a gentle ear. I was able to tap into Mama D because I was Mama D so many times in my own home.
Tell us about your personal connection to dementia.
My beloved mentor, Mrs. Nancy lost her battle with dementia last July. She was a huge musical influence in my life. Currently, my mother-in-law, who I call my 'mother-in-love', is living with dementia. We are not yet a year into her diagnosis.
I often hear my mother-in-love say to herself, “Come on, Johnnie, you've got this!” as she navigates her changing brain. Seeing these effects in yet another strong woman in my life has been so hard. It’s easy to feel helpless, but supporting her and my husband on this journey has given us all the strength we need to keep moving forward.
I accepted the role of Mama D three months before my mother-in-love’s diagnosis. Despite all the back and forth to get that diagnosis, the blessing in disguise is that we now have an answer, and access to all kinds of resources through the Alzheimer’s Association.
Family and friends often take on so much as caregivers, and we must accept help to lighten the impact of the disease. When I think of families I know that have been affected by Alzheimer's and dementia in years past, they didn’t know about or have the resources they needed. I want people to know that you cannot do this alone; this is far bigger than any of us.
What message does “Unforgettable” send to communities across the country?
“Unforgettable” shows that we can make it through this disease as a community if we ask for help. Some people think that asking for help is a sign of lack of faith. Faith-based communities of color especially tend not to reach out for outside help.
As a woman of faith, I know that asking for help is the right thing to do. I couple my faith with science. I couple it with the resources available to me. I believe in God and I also believe we cannot face this disease alone. It takes a village of people to support one another when dementia enters your home. As the cast of “Unforgettable” travel with our show across the country, I hope all impacted Black communities will attend a performance, open up, and ask for help.
The power of theater and this production is that it gives us the opportunity to deliver disease-related information in an entertaining way. I hope audiences leave each show with a better understanding of Alzheimer’s and of the resources and support that are available through the Alzheimer’s Association.
What do you want everyone to know about Alzheimer's disease?
Everyone should know the signs of the disease. If you pay attention early, you can take action early. We had such a back and forth with my mother-in-love’s doctor that could have been avoided if we had properly voiced the signs we first saw.
It’s my hope that everyone will educate themselves about this disease and give their loved one the best quality of life possible. Educate yourself about all the available resources, and about the value of getting involved in clinical trials.
I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity to use my gifts to bring this important story to light. When I meet audience members after a show, they often say that they can see themselves in the play’s characters. It's my hope they leave “Unforgettable” educated and enlightened. Alzheimer’s is hard, but when you ask for help, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
From the creators of the award-winning play “Forget Me Not,” “Unforgettable” sheds light on recognizing the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s and the importance of underrepresented communities’ participation in clinical trials. Learn more about future performances of “Unforgettable.”
About: LeJuene Thompson is an American gospel musician, actress and artist. She started her music career in 2001 with the release of “Soul Inspiration,” an album that charted on gospel and Christian Billboard charts. Visit LeJeune on Instagram.
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