My Uber driver drops me off a few miles outside campus. As I hurry out of his red Volkswagen Passat, he smiles sympathetically.
When I look out over Mount Auburn Cemetery, I realize my Uber driver had taken pity on me because he believed I am here to mourn.
Fortunately, I am not here to grieve a loved one’s passing. In fact, quite the opposite—I’m here to celebrate a life. Dr. Nancy A. Rappaport, a professor at Harvard Medical School, is performing a one-woman show, “Regeneration,” about her experience battling breast cancer.
The show chronicles her diagnosis, surgery, and recovery through a combination of poetry, direct-address monologues, and impersonations. It’s also, in a sense, “a love letter to Mount Auburn,” Rappaport says. “I [had been] feeling vulnerable and frightened and Mount Auburn is this very tranquil, reassuring place where I found I was less frightened about what I couldn’t predict was going to happen to me.”
The show focuses on Rappaport’s cancer, though many of the events in her life seem worthy of artistic exploration: She’s an accomplished child psychiatrist and two-time author. She introduced trailblazing methods in Cambridge public schools that gained popularity nationwide. Early in her career, she made a documentary about her work that received an Oscar nomination.
Rappaport acknowledges that she has a unique relationship with death, though she believes the subject to be universal. “The one thing that is a human condition is that we’re going to die. And we spend a lot of our lives [not thinking] about that, because it’s an unbearable thought,” she explains. “I’m not embracing the idea that I’m going to die. If I died tomorrow, I’d be wicked pissed.” Rappaport says that her diagnosis allowed her to take this risk of exploring a topic that others shy away from.
Rappaport’s subject matter is almost as brazen a choice as the medium through which she presented it. The last time she performed was as the Wicked Witch of the West—in seventh grade. So why a play? “I’ve always wanted to do community theater, and I thought, maybe I can turn this into a one-woman show,” she says.
Performing this play not only helped her deal with her past trauma, but also educated her. “I think it’s a life lesson… this idea that in order to get through [to people] when you’re acting, you have to be completely present in the moment you’re in,” she says. “If you’re thinking about the next scene that you have to do, you’re screwed because the audience is also distracted. And it felt really grounding to learn that discipline.”
This experience has made Rappaport approach her work as a doctor differently. She has concluded that “the moments that you’re with a patient shape how a patient feels.” When a doctor is in the moment with a patient, that doctor is doing “sacred work,” she says.
Rappaport maintains this optimism both on and offstage, but also acknowledges the frightening reality of events in her life. “I’m 100 percent recovered,” she tells the audience, “and we’re all terminal.”