Interview: Tawni O' Dell On Sharing Her Family's Story & Helping Others with Theatrical Memoir, WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU

By: Oct. 18, 2019

Interview: Tawni O' Dell On Sharing Her Family's Story & Helping Others with Theatrical Memoir, WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU

New York Times best-selling author, Tawni O'Dell brings her theatrical memoir, When It Happens To You to The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture this fall. Directed and co-conceived by two-time Tony nominee, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, this powerful play examines a mother's struggle to help restore a sense of safety and wholeness to her family after her daughter was the victim of a brutal attack. Ms. O'Dell takes audiences on this courageous journey and tells the story of how this tragedy affected her family and how they are healing in the present day.

BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to speak with Ms. O'Dell after the play's opening night about her personal journey; how society needs to do better by women; and what audiences can take away, when it comes to caring for their own families.

The title of the play truly sets the stage for your story - making it real for audience members. What has the journey of sharing your family's story been like in this theatrical memoir?

Tawni: The original idea was to write a book, as I was having almost as much trouble coping with the attack, as my daughter. I was thinking a lot about what I could do for her and thought about using my skill sets as a writer. I thought, in the play, if maybe she could see herself as a character and in an objective way, maybe it might help. After she read the story, she remarked how powerful it was and said it needed to be shared. Working with our director, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, and this wonderful cast has allowed me to talk about it in a new way.

This past Sunday marked opening night in New York City. What was the support like having your daughter, son, and family in the audience?

Opening night was so terrifying. My daughter, son, and whole family were there and I couldn't have known ahead of time what they'd think. They loved it and my daughter came backstage and gave me a hug and cried -- knowing the importance of sharing our story. So far, it has been so positive. I say so far, because there's not an ending to a story like this and as a parent, you always worry. My daughter left the play feeling good, supported, and loved. She's not ashamed anymore.

You star as yourself in the play and explain that you are not an actress, but a writer who is here to tell a story. Can you describe what that process is like for you and has it helped with healing in a different way?

It was never a question that I wouldn't play myself and as a woman who lived this experience, wrote about it, and now is telling audiences about it, it has been cathartic. Society makes people feel like they can't talk about it, but it's so necessary to raise your voice.

Being on stage has been a completely new process for me and I have such respect for actors - for their hard work and talent. It's something that nobody could prepare you for ahead of time! It's been such a positive experience to work with our cast, director, and producers in telling this story.

Some of the statistics shared in the play are astounding. Particularly, that 1 in 4 women experience sexual assault in their lifetime and those are just the reported cases. Any thoughts on how society can do better?

Society needs to do better. Women have to feel safe in speaking out and with an issue like rape, seeking professional help is really important.

It's also been really nice to see the amount of men coming to the show and having conversations around how we can take better care of women. Women are human beings and seeing the hurt makes it very real.

In my opinion, there are not enough resources to deal with rape cases. Women need legal recourses and to feel supported. While it's hard to know the answer, it's imperative that we talk about this. As a society, we are trying to move forward and I hope with this play, we can be a small part of starting that dialogue.

What do you hope audience members will take away with them?

While the play contains heavy material, there also is a lot of humor and love. It's not a play about rape - but is a play about a family dealing with the ripple effects of a violent crime. The play brings out a feeling of empathy and I hope audiences will check in with those they love after seeing the show.

When It Happens To You runs through November 10th at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel