We met at a coffee shop rather than her home because Malika Lee is a private person. Her family raised her that way, but sometimes even the most self-contained person needs other people, especially when life is at risk.
Lee’s Aunt Casaundra suffered three years with breast cancer before she died in 2007. She didn’t want people to know about her diagnosis, she didn’t want people who asked to help to see her as she worsened, and she didn’t trust the treatments doctors offered — chemo, radiation, surgery.
Out of that private pain, Lee has created a very public work, a play, “The Purification Process,” which opens Saturday at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. She hopes the play will provide a way for more people to talk openly about breast cancer and that it will raise awareness, especially among women of color, a hard-hit group.
The play is also part of Lee’s personal evolution from financial analyst to artist. Lee said her aunt’s struggles “interrupted the trajectory of how I was living my life.”
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Family has always been central to Lee, a second-generation Seattle native and an only child who grew up surrounded by extended family and with aunts and uncles for playmates. Her Aunt Casaundra used to sew her Halloween costumes.
Lee went from Garfield High School to Spelman College in Atlanta, where she enjoyed being one of many high-performing black students. But like lots of young people she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, so when it came time to pick a major, she took her father’s advice.
Both her parents were entrepreneurial, Lee said, and she saw herself in business. Her father, a schoolteacher, got an MBA and worked on Wall Street for a time before returning to teaching. He suggested she get a degree in finance, which she did, graduating in 2001.
For several years she worked and made money, but said, “I remember lying in bed wondering what am I passionate about?” She didn’t have an answer, but she started keeping a journal and the writing became her therapy, her escape from days of work that weren’t fulfilling.
She’d seen what real passion looked like and felt like when she took a trip to Kenya in 2005 with a group of women who wanted to build connections between Africans and people of African descent on other continents.
She was also dealing with her aunt’s diagnosis. During this period she decided to quit her job. She had no work waiting and no idea what she wanted to do. People she knew thought she’d lost it, but she was just beginning the journey toward finding it — her passion, her life.
Lee left Seattle for Greenville, S.C. While there, she took an acting class and liked it.
But within a year her aunt and two other relatives died. She came back to Seattle to be with her family but continued to take acting classes.
The play started to take form in 2008, and this year she felt it was close enough to being done that she should bring it to the stage. She’s gotten support in that from individuals and organizations that share her goal of fighting breast cancer with a work that communicates through both information and feelings, through pain and humor.
Lee said the main character is not her aunt, but the play is about her aunt’s response, her denial, her silence, which the main character, Cynthia, shares. Of her aunt, Lee said, “There was a lot of love that people had for her that she would not have known because she was keeping people at bay.”
Even people who are more open can have difficulty dealing with some problems, and breast cancer is certainly among them. Before her aunt’s diagnosis, Lee said she knew little about the disease, but she began studying. Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from the disease than white women. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death for Hispanic women, who are often not diagnosed until the disease is in an advanced stage. There are issues particular to each group of women and issues in common, beginning with the need for more information.
One of her partners in spreading the message is Susan G. Komen Puget Sound, which will provide informational materials at each performance and coordinate a discussion after the closing performance, Nov. 16.
“My aunt wasn’t going to go to a support group, right? She was too private,” Lee said. Lee asked herself how she could reach someone like her aunt. “She wouldn’t go to a support group, but she would go to a play.”
This play is about the audience in multiple ways. At each performance an audience member will be asked to share a story during a support-group scene.
Lee is inviting people to open up and said working on this play makes her think maybe it’s her calling to tell stories about things people are reluctant to talk about and to get them to talk. That’s a growth opportunity for a private person.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org