If you’re looking for a way to close out strong for the month of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, look no further than Valerie David’s solo show. David, a three-time cancer survivor and a patient advocate, is giving three performances at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre of The Pink Hulk: One Woman’s Journey to Find the Superhero Within. In addition to the performances running October 27 – 30, you can see David engage in 30-minute talkbacks with audiences alongside panelists Erin Fairman, Melissa Telzer Milne-Post, and Jenny Saldaña.
In addition to being a playwright and performer, Valerie is a member of the Solo Arts Heal collective. She is working on a new solo show called Baggage from BaghDAD.
Since 2016, more than 40 theatre festivals worldwide have accepted The Pink Hulk into their performance line-ups, a testament to the appeal and strength of Valerie David’s inspiring story. David joined me by phone recently to explain what all of us need in order to find our superheroes within, what motivated her on her own journey, and what we can expect in the talkbacks. Here are the highlights of our discussion.
Does the Pink Hulk have sidekicks or a squad, like many other superheroes?
We have a big squad: my friends, family, and audiences. My sidekicks are the amazing cancer patients and survivors who come to see the show. My doctor is also a sidekick. [Laughs] I have a bigger squad than most superheroes [in] Marvel or DC Comics.
As a Pink Hulk, what’s something important to have in your toolkit?
For the toolkit, it’s to never give up hope and keep going with any adversity. It’s not just about fighting cancer, but to find the superhero within. Having been diagnosed with cancer three different times in my life with two different cancers, what got me going was hope and the love of family and friends.
What’s something a friend or family member said or did that made a difference along your journey?
I come from a family that escaped Iraq in 1941, from a pogrom called the Farhud. They left with what they could carry. It’s [like] what is happening now with Afghanistan and all over the world, as people are being forced out and fleeing. I come from a family with survivors. When I was diagnosed with cancer for the third time, my cousin David said, “You know, Valerie, you’ve going to be okay because of the stock you’ve come from.”
My grandmother had cancer, both Non-Hodgkin’s and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In the 1950s, she was the only patient who survived in her ward at North Shore Hospital on Long Island. There was only radiation back then. I think I get so much strength from my grandmother, my family. My father has stage IV metastatic prostate cancer and he inspires me everyday.
It has an impact, having people that believe in my survival as much I believe in it. When I was in the hospital getting treatment, my lymphoma doctor, Dr. Carol Portlock, brought in a squad of fellows. These doctors-in-training were examining me and going over my case with her. When they left, my nurse came back in and said, “I just want you to know that I overheard your doctor say to the group, ‘I’m not worried about Valerie. She’s going to be fine.'”
Was there a particular performance when you realized The Pink Hulk was really taking off?
I was in the Gothenburg Fringe Festival. I was terrified to do it overseas. It was the first time I’d gone over to a country where English wasn’t the primary language. I was nervous about how it would translate. It meant so much to me [that] I won the WOW Award, one of the top awards for bravery and sense of awe that I gave the audience. We don’t do this show for accolades. I do it as a passion project and my mission in life is to help people.
When you get the recognition, it is a validation that you are on the right path. At talkbacks [there], people were telling me how much it meant to them to talk with me about the show and how honest it is. They are in a society where things are not talked about, [whereas] in the U.S., we have many support groups. I want to inspire and empower people to keep going, providing a light we need more now than ever.
Looking at how society regards people with serious medical hurdles, what’s something we need to work on?
I’ve had cancer three times. My diagnosis is stage IV metastatic breast cancer but I have no evidence of disease. That means the cancer is dormant and there is no trace of it. When I was [last] diagnosed with cancer, I got the phone call in Portland, Oregon, the morning of a show. I was afraid to admit I had cancer again and a stage IV diagnosis because I was afraid of the discrimination. I was afraid people would look at me differently, as if I was damaged goods.
I don’t want anyone to be defined by their cancer or a chronic illness. It doesn’t mean they can’t have the most fulfilling life. I realized I can’t be the Pink Hulk if I am not truthful and forthcoming with my own life. I made the decision to reveal my cancer diagnosis. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m proud of my diagnosis and the fight I keep fighting. I feel that I own it now, which is the most liberating feeling. I’m on a medicine that I’m taking for life. Hearing about a stage IV diagnosis of cancer is not a death sentence anymore.
What do you get out of the talkbacks with your fellow speakers?
My talkback squad has Jenny, Melissa, and Erin. I love the talkbacks because I’ve learned so much through their own cancer experiences. For instance, Jenny had such financial difficulties, which she told the audience about. I had two different out-of-pocket bills for $5,000, even though my insurance company paid thousands to the hospitals. What we don’t realize is that we can get those bills pardoned if we ask for help from the hospital.
I love being there with Jenny, Melissa, and Erin because we’re all one mind. We have been able to contribute with questions from the audience. In my show, I have a teddy bear that I used to sleep with night when I was lonely and scared. At a talkback, Erin brought out her unicorn; [so] she also has a stuffed animal! Melissa does a lot of things through InKind Space with making life so much easier for women affected with cancer. She’s also an excellent moderator.
How do you see the role of the arts as a conversation starter on important subjects today?
Art truly does change our lives and stimulates conversations that we’re afraid to have, whether it’s a solo show or a play. With The Pink Hulk, I want to shed light on the issues of people going through cancer and people not going through cancer. The conversation starter is how can we make a difference in other people’s lives? How can we help each other?
If you don’t have knowledge, what you have is fear. My show talks about what it’s like to go through radiation, losing your hair, and finding love. One aspect of the show providing lots of humor is that I tried to meet up with guys that I knew. I would call them up before starting chemo and they kept rejecting me. I thought my womanhood was going to be robbed in my search for love. Audiences will have to see if I have a happy ending. The conversation is about the universal message that we all want love and acceptance for who we are.