Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Storyteller
CATF: Whenever you describe the play “Dead and Breathing” you say, “It’s a comedy. Swear.” What’s funny about being in a hospice for two years dying of cancer?
CHISA HUTCHINSON: Exactly. There’s really nothing funny about it. Whenever I tell people what the play is about, it always sounds so heavy and bleak. If you’re living in hospice or a hospice worker, you cannot be in that space all the time. It would be exhausting. Hospice workers have to have a sense of humor otherwise they would scratch their eyes out and never come out into the light of day.
Comedy is a defense mechanism. It’s the way we survive. If people who are suffering just dwelt on the suffering, it would be totally exhausting and unpleasant. If you plan on living, you’ve got to have a sense of humor.
CATF: One of the characters in “Dead and Breathing” is based on your favorite aunt.
CHISA: When I finished this play, I was so excited to send it to my aunt to get her stamp of approval. She loves it and has shared it with everybody. She’s a nurse who has seen a lot of suffering, yet she is probably one of the funniest women I know. She’s got such a wry sense of humor and is relentless with her comedy. She is a joy to be around, and I hope that the audience will find her as enthralling as I do.
CATF: Did you follow her around with a tape recorder or a pad and pencil? How much of this play is comprised of her actual words?
CHISA: It’s more that the characters are inspired by her. It’s more like I’m asking, “What would my aunt do if she were in this position?” Yes, I’m transplanting her into this fictitious situation, but the character is very real with my aunt’s attitude, her humor and her quickness.
CHISA: She would say that my greatest strength is loving and my greatest weakness is loving.
CATF: You have said that your plays are about three things: race, sexuality and gender. Is this true about “Dead and Breathing”?
CHISA: I always have an agenda, but I don’t like to beat people over the head with it. Whenever you have to give your pet a pill for medication, they won’t swallow it. But if you stick the pill in a piece of cheese or wrap a piece of chicken around it, they’ll eat it. I feel that way with plays that have messages. If you wrap the message in something else — like a narrative about mortality and morality, faith and forgiveness – it makes a message about race or gender easier to swallow.
CATF: Is the play more about the relationship between the two women or about death and assisted suicide?
CHISA: The relationship is the vehicle that carries the message. How can men in your audience come to care about women? How can you make them give a shit about gender issues? They won’t if you don’t give them something broader to relate to. How can I write a play about race that people who do not identify as people of color can relate to? The trick is to focus on the human relationships and present another angle to sneak the message in.
CHISA: I hear that a lot.
CATF: Why is someone as young as you dealing with assisted suicide?
CHISA: I have multiple sclerosis, and I wonder sometimes – and this is kind of morbid – when I’m going to die. I have fears and concerns about how MS will affect my breathing or my heart or some other function that I really need. Right now it’s just in my legs. I wonder if it ever got to the point where I was unable to function, if I would decide, “Wow, this is not really the quality of life I want. I really would rather not go on like this.” I wonder if I would decide that, but I don’t think I have the courage.
CATF: Here’s an excerpt from a short story called, “Go Like This” by Lorrie Moore. The story is about Elizabeth, a married writer with one child who has been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and announces to her friends and family that she has decided to end her life: “I tell them the cancer is poisoning at least three lives and that I refuse to be its accomplice. This is not a deranged act, I explain. Most of them have known for quite a while my belief that intelligent suicide is almost always preferable to the stupid lingering of a graceless death.” What do you think of that description?
CHISA: Wow. Wow. That is the best articulation of that I have ever heard. This applies directly to “Death and Breathing” because it is the struggle between this nurse whose job is to nurture life, and the patient who asks her to end it. It goes against what the nurse believes. Her function is to tease out the difference between intelligence – as in intelligent suicide – and ingratitude for life. The nurse feels like this woman who has been in hospice for two years has had two years of life. The nurse can’t shake the feeling that this woman is totally ungrateful and has wasted two years worth of life.
This play is a question: Is there a difference between that intelligence and that ingratitude? Between rationally wanting to end your life and being ungrateful for the life you’ve been given?
CATF: Are you grateful for the life you’ve been given?
CHISA: I am absolutely grateful for the life I’ve been given. Every day. Every day. I sometimes wonder if there will come a time when I’m not grateful or when I will say, “Okay, time for that intelligence. Time for the intelligent suicide that could be a grateful way of going.”