Play looks to raise Alzheimer's awareness among African-Americans

A playwright uses his personal experience to raise awareness in the black community.
Daren McGill and Samantha McSwain perform in Forget Me Not, a play about Alzheimer's disease that will be staged Saturday. Garrett Davis
Daren McGill and Samantha McSwain perform in Forget Me Not, a play about Alzheimer's disease that will be staged Saturday.Garrett Davis

Performing in a theatrical production was just something young Garrett Davis wanted to check off his to-do list.

Twenty-one years later, the playwright and CEO and founder of Garrett Davis Productions has amassed more than 20 productions and five national tours.

He brings one of those shows, Forget Me Not, to the University of South Florida stage Saturday to help raise awareness of Alzheimer's disease in the African-American community.

"My grandmother passed away from Alzheimer's, but at the time, I didn't know what the disease was," Davis said. "Going home and my grandmother not knowing who I was, was very uncomfortable."

After his grandmother passed, Davis was surprised to find out from his own mother that his grandmother actually had been asking about him.

"So, I wanted to do a play as closure," Davis said.

The production mirrors the experiences family and friends go through, when realizing their loved ones have Alzheimer's. Once the realization is made, then it is about acceptance.

Kynya Milam, 43, plays Renee, a daughter in denial that her father is suffering from the mind-altering disease.

"People are trying to get me to take him to the doctor, but I am saying there's nothing wrong," Milam said of her character. "My mom has a best friend whose dad went through the same things. The stories presented in the play are the same things that happened to him."

Oftentimes, audience members who relate to Renee will approach Milam after the show.

"People come to me saying 'I see myself in you. I was in denial.' They are so heart warming," Milam said. "The play helps them get through it, and it's very inspirational."

Even when Davis was working as a general manager, disc jockey, janitor and all encompassing positions at a radio station after college, he looked to plays as a way to raise money and awareness.

"I thought maybe I'll do a play to raise money for the radio station," Davis said. "Lo and behold we put 750 people in a high school auditorium for $15 a person."

Unable to juggle both radio and plays, Davis chose to focus on the latter.

Today, all of his productions carry a message.

"All the plays are linked together, even though they are separate."

He dedicates his life to writing and partnering with organizations, like African-Americans Against Alzheimer's.

It is Davis' hope that what audience members see onstage will enable them to see the signs and get their loved ones checked out. Workshops and seminars accompany the plays for further assistance.

"I wanted to learn everything about the disease that took my grandmother away," Davis said of his inspiration.

Before his work became national touring and award-winning productions, Davis would throw a couch in the back of his pickup truck and that would constitute the set.

"When Tyler Perry came out and started doing plays, it changed the way everyone else was doing plays," Davis said. "He (Perry) raised the bar."

Inspired, Davis created more elaborate sets and saw the power of stage plays in influencing the community.

"We are creating influential urban productions to get African-Americans knowledgeable about care giving," Davis said.

Contact Arielle Waldman at a[email protected] or follow @ariellewaldman.