A local multihyphenate actress is processing her love/hate relationship with her mother the only place she knows how– the stage.
Barra Grant–actress, screenwriter, film director and playwright–will bring her new play ‘Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson & Me’ to the Edgemar this weekend, June 21. The play is a cathartic, comedic, tragic processing of Grant’s relationship with her mother, oscillating from fond closeness between the two to a nearly insurmountable chasm between them.
Grant, who describes herself as the antithesis of her mother, says she wants to show audiences how she found her place in life while in the titanic shadow of her mother and eventually, found love and forgiveness.
The play details the highs and lows of Grant and Myerson’s relationship with her mother, who Grant says was emotionally abusive; aside from constantly chastizing Grant’s appearance, Myerson would keep Grant up, talking about her own life and affairs, completely disinterested in her own daughter’s life.
Grant’s mother was the titular Bess Myerson, a former Miss America who Grant details as an accomplished pianist, TV personality, New York City’s first Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, a close advisor to Ed Koch and a national spokesperson against anti-Semitism. That is, until she fell in love with a mafioso.
Grant took the time to talk to the Daily Press about the play and her relationship with her mother.
What inspired the creation of this play?
I grew up with a woman who is spectacularly beautiful and it left me feeling like the kid who grew up on the wrong branch in the family tree. I was chubby and funny-looking. It was tough to be in a world where she was so celebrated and appreciated.
She was this 5’10, gorgeous women who went out in the world and gave speeches for different causes. She really held her weight. When you’re a kid, that’s impressive and really intimidating. You never feel good enough or pretty enough or smart enough, especially when she tells you so.
She posed an impossible kind of goal in my mind. I think there’s a universality with mothers and daughters. Kids can feel ignored in the shadow of their parents’ accomplishments and lives.
Her only failings were with men. She made unfortunate choices, her last bad choice being involved with a gentleman in the mafia. But she really liked him.
Family issues can be tumultuous, perhaps easier portrayed in a straight-up drama. What was behind the choice to make this comedic?
I think it’s kind of hard to talk about anything without humor in it. No matter how sad or tragic it is, it’s more interesting if it’s relayed comedically.
Mom was extremely funny. Her reactions to life… she was a bit of a narcissist so everything revolved around her and all the problems around the world and her were directly related to her. That is a deeply funny character. So, that’s why I did it. Laughter deters.
You’re a television actress, a screenwriter and film director– why was the medium of choice for this work a play?
I think live theater is the most exciting thing in the world. I had written a lot of stories about her over the years. This was first developed as a one-woman show, then developed as a play and now it’s in the theater and doing more runs because we keep doing well.
It’s just so much more exciting to do something live and engage and take them on the ride with you. I love it, I love performing it. I love the reaction of the audience I love connecting with live people it’s very exciting.
This is all so extremely vulnerable and personal– was any other family consulted for this while this was being made? Did your mother know about this before her passing?
My mother didn’t know about this, I think it would have been hard to do while she was alive. After mom passed away, it was… kind of okay to tell the story. (laughs)
It does make fun of things about her life that she took deathly serious but I found hilarious. She was larger than life. But no, no family of mine has seen anything about this. I thought it was best not to get feedback while making it. This is from my point of view, some wouldn’t get it.
Why did you choose the Edgemar to house this production?
We’ve done it at the Edye and the Greenway and then the Edgemar suddenly became available, which it’s perfect for. This play belongs in a small, intimate venue as opposed to one with a thousand people. I want intimacy, I want eye contact with as many people as I can so I can get on a personal level. The Edgemar is a beautiful, great space– a gem on the Westside.
What catharsis did this process bring, if any?
It was very cathartic for me and I’ve learned a lot from it. I learned to take myself less seriously and provide a way of laughing at myself, to not take myself seriously until I earn the right to. I learned that as long as you hold anger or animosity or blame, the harder it is to live your life.
When you watch the show, you see how thoughtless [my mom] could be in many ways and how complicated she could be. By the end of the show, the message is, ‘Forgiveness will set you free.’
What do you hope audiences get from this play?
I hope that the audience gets how complicated this relationship is and how complicated it all is. I take myself through adolescence, losing my virginity, marriage, having a kid of my own, everything.
That’s the trip I want to take people on, a place everyone has been in their lives. They can laugh at themselves and learn something about their lives and mine. I think everything is about learning, no matter how [expletive] up it is. Humor or drama, it’s great to walk out of a play and feel something. .
Performances of Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson & Me take place June 21 – Aug 4 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St. For more information, including ticket prices, call (323) 285-2078 or visit MissAmericasUglyDaughter.com