The incredible true story of civil rights activist Sister Thea Bowman is brought to life on stage in this energetic and soulful new play. We follow Thea and her childhood self on an inspiring journey from her upbringing in Mississippi through her tireless campaign to promote diversity in the Catholic Church. Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Thea’s voice transcended racial and cultural barriers, leaving an enduring legacy that continues to burn bright. Buoyed by the music that inspired her including “Kum Bah Yah” and “We Shall Overcome,” Thea’s Turn reminds us all that no matter our race or religion, each of us has a unique gift to offer the world.
The lights come up on a lively, somewhat mischievous, ten year old Bertha Bowman jumping rope in her Sunday best outside her home on Hill Street in Canton, Mississippi. She is having a conversation, or rather conducting a monologue, with next door neighbor elderly Mrs. Jones who patiently endures Bertha’s rendition of the white sisters from “up north” who have arrived in town to start a new Catholic school not a stone’s throw from the Bowman home. Bertha’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Bowman, decide to send Bertha to the new school because they are not satisfied with the quality of education in the public schools. Much to everyone’s surprise, not the least of which her parents, Bertha converts to Catholicism, and to add insult to injury, announces she is going to join the Congregation of white Sisters in La Crosse, WI. Her parents oppose her decision, but after Bertha goes on a hunger strike, they give in. The next thing you know she is a postulant in cold Wisconsin writing a monthly letter to her parents about her “calling” to this strange land in an “all white” world. Bertha, the impersonation of Thea as her child-self, reminds Thea constantly and annoyingly that Thea has sold out her African American heritage to a world that will eventually destroy them “both.” While a postulant, Thea contracts tuberculosis and, but for the intervention of her mentor, Sister Charlotte, she would have decided to leave the convent. Upon recovery, Sister Thea is sent back to her Alma Mater, Holy Child Jesus School in Canton, this time to teach her own people. It is in Canton that Thea realizes the importance of her role as a Black religious leader among her people. However, another conflict surfaces when her religious superiors insist she continue her education up north in instead of remaining in Canton to aid the coming of the Freedom Riders in 1964. Her mentor Sister Charlotte guides her again to a realization of her larger role as an African American religious woman and a teacher to all. Thea is sent to the The Catholic University of American in Washington, D,C. to study for her Ph.D in English Language and Literature. It is at the diverse campus of Catholic University where Catholic nuns attended from Nairobi to India that Thea is transformed as a Catholic nun and realizes she can be, must be, both Black and Catholic.
Act Two opens with Thea back in Canton, no longer a docile, traditional nun, but as the Director of the Office of Intercultural Awareness for the Diocese of Jackson. Mississippi. Word spreads around the country about this unusual nun’s presentation as a lecturer-songster and she receives invitations to speak on numerous occasions at universities as well as other religious institutions. She wears African robes and a turban instead of the traditional nun’s attire. Amid a swell of activity, Thea becomes victim to another setback. She is diagnosed with breast cancer that has spread throughout her body. She undergoes chemotherapy, loses her hair, but not her spirit. Despite constant pain and never ending chemotherapy, she vows to “live until she dies.” She continues a grueling lecture schedule, belting out her favorite Gospel songs, quoting the “old folks, laughs and cries with those ‘less fortunate than she,” informs the preachers how to preach and the illiterate how to teach. In 1987, she is catapulted to fame when Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes comes to Canton to interview her. Although confined to a wheel chair as a result of being riddled with cancer, she uses her fame to continue spreading her message that reiterates the mantra of St. Theresa of Avila: “We cannot know whether we love God…but there can be no doubt about whether or not we love our neighbor.” In 1989, Thea Bowman receives the ultimate honor. She is invited to speak at the American Bishops Conference, a first for a woman, not to mention that of an African American woman. Thea died March 30, 1990.
–The Clarion Ledger
Bertha - Bertha Bowman is Sister Thea as a child. Beginning in Act One, Scene 3, Bertha is personified as the inner voice of the child within Sister Thea Bowman.
Mrs. Ward - Mrs. Ward is the Bowman's next door neighbor on Hill Street in Canton, MS. Mrs. Ward is a microcosm of all the "old folks" in Sister Thea's life, the folks whose voices and philosophies and spirituality surface in her speeches and religious expression.
Gospel Choir - The Gospel Choir consists of members of the African American Protestant Church and represents Sister Thea's strong identification and dedication to her Protestant religious roots. Through gospel songs, the Gospel Choir demonstrates Sister Thea's ongoing inner conflict between her Protestant African American roots and the liturgical expression and rites of the Western European Roman Catholic Church. The Gospel Choir should be vibrant, a religious experience. It should represent Thea’s notion that “God doesn’t want any feeble service.” Members of the Gospel Choir consist of the African American Cast members who play character roles in the play.
Monastic Choir - The Monastic Choir consists of Catholic religious nuns, priests, and lay men and women who represent Sister Thea's admiration and respect for the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church that has its roots in Western European Caucasian culture. The two choirs represent a conflict of expression of religious worship as well as the conflict within Thea. The Choir expresses in song what Thea expresses in word: the liturgical obstacles of expression that face those who are Black and Catholic. Members of the Monastic Choir consist of white cast members.
Thea - Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, an only child of African American parents Dr. Theon Bowman and Mrs. Elizabeth Coleman Bowman, was raised Protestant in Canton, MS, until she converted to Catholicism and entered the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse Wisconsin.
Sister Charlotte - Sister Charlotte, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, is Sister Thea's mentor.
Father Joe - Father Joseph Dyer, an African American Catholic priest with roots in New Orleans, is a good friend of Sister Thea. In many ways he represents the traditional Catholic Church as a Black religious priest.
Denis - Denis represents the universal, post Vatican II religious in the Catholic Church. Through 1960s folk music, he is a metaphor of merging cultures within the Catholic Church and American society in general.
Dort - Sister Dorothy Ann Kundinger (Dort) is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and Sister Thea's best friend. Dort assists Sister Thea with the care of both her parents, with Sister Thea's mission as lecturer around the country and the world, and, finally, assists her in her death passage.
Doctor - Gives Sister Thea the news of her breast cancer.
Setting: Canton MS (Bowman Home; Holy Child Jesus School)/La Crosse WI (Convent/TB Sanatorium); The Catholic University of America campus, Washington D.C. Because the set covers the life of Sister Thea Bowman from 1948-1989, the set changes require a minimalist prop approach.
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"The Spring of 2015, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson presented, "Thea's Turn" to commemorate the 25th anniversary of her death. Sr. Thea, Mississippi native, African American, Catholic sister and prophetic voice for the marginalized, grew up in Jim Crowe Mississippi. Playwright Mary Queen Donnelly has beautifully captured the heart, spirit and legacy of Sr. Thea Bowman. Her story is compelling, timeless and is a master class in Catholic social teaching." –Fran Lavelle, Diocesan Director, Department of Faith Formation, Jackson, Mississippi
Materials: your materials will be sent to you two months prior to your opening date and will include everything necessary for your production and can be ordered in Printed or Digital format. Printed Materials are provided on unbound three-hole punched loose-leaf paper while digital Materials are provided via email as downloadable PDF files for you to print in-house. All materials are yours to keep! No deposits, no returns.
The required materials for Thea’s Turn include:
Orchestrations: Piano, Percussion
Print Edition – Beautifully bound scripts available at wholesale costs to sell in your lobby!
Director's Script – Single-sided script with space for director’s notes.
Logo/PR Pack – Includes high-resolution logo artwork and a ready-made show poster.