Roni Graham — a children’s behavioral therapist turned actor/comedian — looks for the humor in life’s hardships. Graham’s solo multimedia show Laughter Is Therapy takes the cliché of turning life’s lemons into lemonade and whips up a batch of her own recipe infused with emotional vigor. At its core, the show has a message that is good for the soul: no matter what you endure, you can make it through with a little laughter.
"Laugh at things that aren’t funny"
Always the type to “laugh at things that aren’t funny,” Graham took what some might see as a character flaw and wrote a show based on her dark sense of humor and even darker life experiences. Centered around her upbringing in Philadelphia in the 1980s and ‘90s, Graham discusses physical and sexual abuse, navigating the foster-care system, surviving a shootout, and much more. The result is 11 punchy, emotionally charged anecdotes about the first 20 years of her life.
Laughter Is Therapy thrives on the strength of Graham’s dynamic performance. Her vivacious personality and energy engulfs the stage as she crawls, tumbles, and dances her way through hilarious stories of first loves and first times: mustering up the courage not to beat up the mean girls (a.k.a. “the transformers”) in middle school; making sure her father had a gun during a Miami Vice-style shootout at his auto shop (thankfully, neither Graham was hurt).
Graham’s physical comedy isn’t the only thing that helps the show keep its momentum; it’s also assisted by props, music, and lighting. Lisa Barnes’s lighting design uses bright oranges and reds, referencing the disco era. The show’s music, with sound design by Syd Redmond, features funk, soul, and R&B, and helps pace Graham’s transition from one decade to the next.
Under Ozzie Jones’s direction, there are few props: a toy chest with dolls and stuffed animals, a folding chair, a blanket. These elements are used whenever Graham references her childhood and help her transition from a confident black woman into a vulnerable child or mischievous adolescent. She performs in a simple black blouse and tights, but these subtle additional elements help her embody each story she tells.
A family affair
“I have been a child behavioral specialist for 16 years and work with kids who have gone through less than I have,” Graham explained during one of her post-show talkbacks. “I was able to get through things that were really bad and that a lot of people can’t get through. If someone is going through it, I want them to see someone who has made it and is doing okay.”
Graham is certainly doing okay these days, having earned a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University and master’s degrees in organizational management and counseling. She also racked up several acting credits, including productions of Death of a Salesmen, Twelve Angry Men, Dance with Me, and Single Black Female.
But before she realized her desire to attend college, or even her dreams of being an actress, Graham was a girl living in what she deemed a “quintessential” ‘80s black family. Her childhood was filled with music, nightclubs, and drugs. Her father was a drug dealer who served time in prison; her mother was an addict. Her parents’ relationship was volatile, and her mother would take her frustrations out on young Graham. “But it was nothing compared to how my dad beat my mom,” she says.
In a scene titled “Domestic Violence,” Graham reenacts a night her father hit her mother. Graham alters her personality to become the child version of herself. While holding a Cabbage Patch doll, she curls up on the floor hoping the violence will stop, as the sound of slaps and screams fill the theater. It is one of the few moments roars of laughter are silenced and the theater becomes eerily still. But these far less comedic moments paint a vivid picture of the obstacles Graham overcame to get to where she is today.
In the show’s final scene, titled “Rape,” Graham pulls the audience into another pain account, detailing the night she was sexually assaulted at gunpoint. As she concludes the story, she bows her head and sobs into her hands. In the background, photos from her college graduation scroll by (projections by Kismet Henderson).
As the stage fades to black, these are the final images people see of Graham — smiling in her cap and gown surrounded by friends and family. It seems to be her way of saying once again that if she can make it, so can others.