LITHONIA, Ga. -- Tour buses line the parking lot at Antioch Lithonia Missionary Baptist Church. Some have come from neighboring states. Many are members of the church. By 10 a.m. on this Saturday morning, more than a 1,000 people will fill the pews, awaiting the big performance.
Backstage, Garrett Davis and his fellow actors are getting ready, putting on makeup that will age them by several decades, donning clothes to match their older faces. Davis is the playwright of Forget Me Not. He wrote the play to honor his grandmother whose name was Goodness.
“I’m the oldest of 23 grandchildren, the first one to go to college. Goodness was the apple of my eye and I was the apple of hers, and when I went home for spring break and she didn’t know who I was, I couldn’t deal with that. I didn’t go back until the funeral.”
Davis breaks down, explaining how his college aged self turned away from his grandmother at the end of her battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. “I couldn’t stand to see her like that. I couldn’t go back until the funeral. It was a few years later that my sisters would say, ‘Goodness would ask about you.”
So Davis wrote ‘Forget Me Not’ to reach out to the African American community, a group twice as likely to get Alzheimer’s but less likely to get help. Doctor Monica Parker from Emory Brain Health Center explains, “Quite frankly, most family members don’t recognize what it is when they see it, they do what they think they can do. They never consult a doctor. They just deal with it.”
Emory Brain Health is the sponsor of the play. It’s an outside the box attempt to reach African Americans, and it’s an attempt that has worked. This is the third time Brain Health has sponsored the play.
Before the play begins, Doctors Parker and James Lah with Emory Brain Health talk to the audience, explaining that taking part in research means becoming part of the solution. Historically, African Americans have not had a positive experience with research, being victimized time and again, so the doctors’ talk with the audience is transparent and in many cases, transformative.
Doctor Parker explains, “Research is not a fearful kind of thing. Research is something as easy as filling out a survey.” It can also be giving blood or spinal fluid, becoming part of the effort to slow down and one day cure Alzheimer’s. Parker and Lah explain to the audience why it’s important for African Americans to sign up, because, “Different diseases manifest differently in different people.”
Then Davis speaks to the audience, asking why they choose Anacin, or Goody’s Powder or Advil when they have a headache. “You take it because it works! I would hate to come up with a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease and it doesn’t work in African Americans. Why wouldn’t it work? Because we don’t participate in clinical trials.”
The play is next and that’s when Davis transforms into a man named June, a gregarious, charismatic patriarch in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. There are many reasons his family misses the signs – his wife has terminal cancer, it’s normal to be forgetful...and the truth, it’s easier to not see something that is so devastating.
The play is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and the audience follows along, tears following laughter.
By the end of the play, more than 300 audience members will sign up to become part of Alzheimer’s Disease research at Emory, willing to join a movement intended to preserve memories, as Garrett Davis says, “For Goodness’ sake.”
To learn more about the Forget Me Not Project -- https://www.fmnproject.org/
Jaye Watson is a contributor to 11Alive and now works for Emory Brain Health providing reports on medical issues.