Actress, playwright, and three-time cancer survivor Jonna Tamases celebrates life from center stage.
By Mia James
Among Jonna Tamases’s defining characteristics are that she is an actress and a writer and that she has survived three cancer diagnoses. For a time, though, Jonna’s professional life and medical history existed more or less independent of each other: cancer was a significant part of her past, but her career on stage and screen was her present and future and where she remained focused. Eventually, however, Jonna united these two elements of her life in her poignant and hilarious one-woman show, Jonna’s Body, Please Hold. She’s brought cancer to the stage, sharing with her audience her physical and emotional trials, but she has never let the disease take the spotlight. For Jonna Tamases life, love, and laughter will always take center stage; cancer is merely a player.
Jonna received her first cancer diagnosis—Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Stage II—just over 20 years ago. Radiation treatment followed as did another diagnosis of lymphoma one year later. This time she was treated with 12 weeks of chemotherapy and moved on with her cancer-free life. But cancer returned about 10 years later, when she was once again diagnosed with a malignancy. This time it was breast cancer (ductal carcinoma in situ), for which she underwent a bilateral mastectomy.
Despite the significant role that cancer has played in Jonna’s life, her decision to use the experience creatively took some time. In fact, Jonna recalls that her initial inclination was clearly to not write about cancer. Having received her first diagnosis as a young adult, she felt particularly resentful toward her situation; as her peers were just launching adult lives and careers, Jonna was scheduling treatments. “I was really angry at having to go through that at such a young age,” she admits. At the time nothing about her cancer experience struck her as worthy of her creative energies let alone as funny.
Fortunately for audiences across the United States, Jonna’s original attitude toward her diagnoses and treatments changed with time. Her initial bitterness faded, Jonna came to view cancer more objectively, recognizing that the daily rigors of treatments and the disease’s broader impact of an individual’s life could provide fascinating, dynamic material for the stage and eventually the screen. The tables were turned: Jonna had taken charge of the disease that once threatened to stall or end her life. The resulting two productions—the original stage version of Jonna’s Body, Please Hold (which premiered in 2003 at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles) and the subsequent 2007 film version—are overwhelmingly defiant and irreverent toward the disease. In fact, in both her writing and her performance Jonna is so brazen—and so funny—that it’s hard to imagine that fear and anger were ever overriding reactions to her diagnoses, even though she admits, “I surely didn’t think it was funny while I was going through it.”
Jonna credits her ability to confront cancer as boldly as she once feared it, and always with a hefty dose of humor, to the perspective she has gained on both the disease and on life in general: she has embraced the fact that life with or without cancer is marked by both joy and pain, often both at once. “Life itself is really painful and hard and sad and scary and at the same time utterly beautiful, profound, miraculous…so much fun,” she says, explaining that by embracing both the good and the bad she feels “buoyed” and deeply connected to humanity—an attitude that she brings to the stage and the screen to make Jonna’s Body, Please Hold more about the joy of living and less about the horror of cancer.
Once Jonna did decide to write about cancer, her motive was to entertain her audience with insights into an experience with which they may be unfamiliar—to present cancer as a “fascinating” topic rather than “scary or maudlin.” Furthermore, Jonna admits that she was looking for good material and, true to her joyful, playful nature, the chance to “prance around the stage being funny.” She believes that these intentions keep the show from being too “heaving handed,” allowing its message—“fullness of life”—to remain universal.
And speaking of wide-ranging appeal, Jonna’s intelligent and whacky humor is irresistible. The show is ingeniously funny, with characters (all performed by Jonna) like Pearl, the feisty receptionist fielding calls from various body parts as they suffer daily insults (like too-tight shoes and a suffocating brassier), and Sergeant Coif, who commands Jonna’s disorderly hair with Shakespearean-style rhetoric. Belly laughs aside, however, the comedy serves another purpose: it allows this deeply human play to reach people on a vulnerable, intimate level. Jonna says that this is what “bridges the gap between me and the audience.”
When Jonna mingles following a performance, she says of the camaraderie, “The wall of reserve has disappeared between me and the audience. People come up to me with this automatic warmth.” So here lies perhaps the greatest value of Jonna’s Body, Please Hold: something inexplicable is shared about the cancer experience—and with it our humanity. The story goes beyond the biology and the statistics, beyond the fear and the grief. Jonna’s message helps us stop asking why and resenting the disease and instead encourages us to embrace the joy of being alive. “I wanted to make a show that expresses the fullness of life: the laughter, joy, silliness, and power as well as the struggle,” she explains.
At the end of the film version of Jonna’s Body, Please Hold, Jonna reflects not on cancer but on life: “It’s just so cool—this life, this being alive. We get to be. How great is that?!” And how great for all of us that we have a spirited, wise voice in Jonna to remind us of what really matters, keeping us, as she hopes, “full of hearty love and the dizzy delight of being alive.”
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