Is it Thursday Yet at La Jolla Playhouse
Jenn Freeman and Sonya Tayeh Join Forces in Dance and Drama
By: Sharon Eubanks - Aug 01, 2023
Is it Thursday Yet, playing at the La Jolla Playhouse, tells the story of dancer Jenn Freeman, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when she was 33 years old. Using actual recordings of her therapy sessions and home videos Jenn’s father recorded as she grew up, the play is essentially a documentary of Jenn Freeman’s life from infancy to young adulthood. Neither Jenn nor her family knew she had ASD.
ASD was officially described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV (DSM) in 1994 and stated that two groups of features must be identified:
- Persistent impairment in reciprocal social communication and social interaction
- Restrictive and repetitive patterns of behavior.
The DSM goes on to say that these features are identified in early childhood. Today children are diagnosed when they are between 1.5 to 3 years old.
A child who is always moving, is overly sensitive to touch, and has a compulsive need to have things in order is misunderstood. From childhood, Jenn could not relate to other people, was extremely sensitive to things like clothing touching her body, didn’t like to be touched, and found solace in activities involving repetitive movements.
Many parents and therapists respond to these behaviors by resorting to medication and placing the child in an institution. However, Jenn had a family who was able to accept Jenn as she was. They created an environment in which she could function in mainstream society. Her grandmother let her play as she wished. At school, she was given tasks such as ordering library books on shelves.
Yet Jenn was always moving, moving, and moving some more. When Jenn’s parents enrolled her in dance classes, a medication was found. Dance became the medication for her condition.
Jenn uses the repetitive movements she learns in dancing as a way to control her environment at home, to control the chaos in her brain. She dances to the point of sheer exhaustion because she doesn’t know when to stop or how to stop dancing.
How to reduce the stimulation? Go into a small, enclosed space, a closet, cupboard. Or if you are growing up in the wide-open spaces in Idaho, go outside away from the houses and people.
The play begins with Jenn's psychologist, Dr. Gilbert who is the play’s narrator, telling a 33-year-old Jenn she has ASD. The audience sees a screen showing pages of the DSM-IV criteria as Dr. Gilbert describes the symptoms of ASD to Jenn.
Critical to making this diagnosis is the treasure trove of home videos Jenn’s father took of her throughout her childhood. Dr. Gilbert takes Jenn back to her early childhood, and with the help of the home videos, works through the symptoms of ASD by pointing out the behavior exhibited in them. In the flashbacks Jenn figuratively goes through the closets and attics of her childhood, all along guided by Dr. Gilbert and the DSM-IV. These flashbacks help Jenn to find herself and understand why she has always had to move and why she dances.
Jenn is constantly moving in the play. In fact, there is so much movement occurring that about midway through the play the audience itself is given a few moments to just relax and chill. However, the dancing and movement pick up again and continue until Jenn is exhausted with the burden of absorbing, processing and interpreting all the information thrown out at her.
To reduce the stimulation Jenn does what she did as a child. She goes into a cupboard and shuts the door. Images of her father holding her as an infant are shown on video monitors around the stage. Images of returning to the womb? Words fly off the screen, but these words are positive, encouraging, forward-looking. Jenn knows why she must move. She can use this knowledge to shape her future.
Jenn Freeman created the play in collaboration with Sonya Tayeh. Tayeh made a mark with So You Think You Can Dance. She says: "Moulin Rouge! is my baby. My innate way is excess—that’s where my body goes when I want to make dances—and that show thrives in excess. But it took a lot of courage to hold onto my sensibility with the movie as such a strong reference point. Over time, I was able to move past the pressure. Holding onto that, and seeing it realized—when I left I really felt like I could do anything. The opening number is 13 minutes long!"
On stage Freeman is joined by the incredibly talented composer Holland Andrews and drummer Price McGuffy.
Is It Thursday Yet transfers to Off Broadway in the fall.
Jul 11 - Aug 6 | Mandell Weiss Forum
Created, choreographed and performed by Jenn Freeman
Created, choreographed and directed by Sonya Tayeh
Composed and performed by Holland Andrews