Lily Mojekwu | Performer of the week
Jenny Sutter is a retired Marine who returns to the U.S. without the lower half of her right leg, and lacking direction for her future, in Next Theatre Company’s Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter. Starring as the tough but weathered Jenny, Lily Mojekwu gives a captivating performance, pulling the audience into Julie Marie Myatt’s play and never letting go. Raised in the suburb of Lake Forest, Mojekwu didn’t become involved with performing until she attended Lake Forest College, where she didn’t study theater but ended up around theater people, acclimating herself to the environment with behind-the-scenes work like creating props. Since dedicating herself to the stage, Mojekwu has worked consistently at small storefronts and larger Equity houses, earning a Jeff Award nomination in 2009 for her work in Steep Theatre’s Greensboro: A Requiem and receiving a Jeff Award for her work in the ensemble of Steep’s In Arabia We'd All Be Kings. Mojekwu speaks to us about the research she did for the role, how she managed Jenny’s handicap, and how she made Jenny’s experience real and personal.
What kind of research did you do into the Marine experience in Iraq and Afghanistan?
In the age of the internet, you can get on YouTube and listen to people talking about stuff; and reading blogs was something I did. We also had a really good dramaturg, who provided us with lots of information and starting points on where to look for other information. We had a psychiatrist come in one day who treats people with PTSD, really acute cases, and he watched the show and answered some questions for us. There were bits and pieces, but certain things really stuck with me significantly, specifically the issue of dreams and PTSD and how that works out.
Was there anything you found in your research that really enlightened your performance?
The dream thing was a really big one. Jenny Sutter has these recurring dreams and finding out that people with PTSD—it’s literally the same dream that plays out time and time again. It just keeps cycling through. And there was a piece of research I found through the dramaturg, about a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley who did some research about REM sleep. During REM sleep, your epinephrine drops out of your body so you’re able to work through the issues in your dreams without having the same emotional response. But oftentimes people with PTSD, this does not happen for them. They still have the adrenaline, so rather than their dreams being a place to process, it becomes retraumatizing. That was a big piece to me, the idea that she was continually traumatized over and over again. There wasn’t any opportunity to have emotional distance from it.
How did you adjust to working with the leg cast and mimicking what it would be like to have a prosthetic leg?
That leg was really hard. And the leg went through so many different incarnations. There’s always that joke, “Give an actor an obstacle…” and as much as I hated that leg, it was really helpful. I hated every minute of the process of making it and every incarnation that we went through. It was hard. There’s something about having a physical obstacle like that that really does impact you internally. It’s literally the way you get around. I couldn’t make it across the stage without encountering it and trying to hide it and trying to deal with it. So in that sense, the process of getting that leg did a lot of the work for me. That was real. It’s so difficult, and the amount of vulnerability you feel as a result of it is—I’m a person who has always been super athletic. You count on your body to do what you need without even thinking about it, so when you’re not able to, what does that mean, and how does that impact you?
How did you work to make Jenny’s family real to you?
I just combed through the text and actually figured out what I knew, what were facts. And then I had to just create it as richly as possible down to every single detail. And again, the dramaturgy was really important in respect to what kind of cell phone would you have when you got out of the military? We had to figure out details about how you’d get that phone and the rest of it. But in respect to the family, I had to just create it as richly as I could. I got married earlier this year and have a stepdaughter now. That relationship impacted my creating that part of Jenny’s story in a way that I didn’t even imagine possible. I’ve fallen madly in love with my stepdaughter in a way I never imagined that I would, and I think that relationship with her helped me really create Jenny’s relationship with her two daughters, what that was about and the fears that you have as a parent. The sense of responsibility you feel, the impact you have on this person’s life and what that could be like coming home after everything [Jenny’s] been through and not really being sure how she was then going to parent her kids because she didn’t know how to get through the day.
Jessica Thebus directed this play previously, in 2008; did her prior experience help make the process easier for you?
I think so. She’s an incredible director and she was very open to it being different, but she was able to bring—I just remember, at one point in the rehearsal where I was having a hard time literally getting through the play. I was in tears. I’d run the play and just be crying through every single scene. It was too emotionally raw for me. And I remember at that point, Jessica, having been through the process, was able to say, “This is part of the process.” And even just hearing that, because I was like, “I can’t survive this personally.” But she was able to let us know, in terms of process, what was normal, what was typical, and that this was OK. This is part of it, and then you will get to another place in the process.
Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter runs through December 23 at Next Theatre Company (927 Noyes St, 847-475-1875). Read our review of Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter.