by Len Lear
The current Philadelphia Fringe Festival has, as it does every year, numerous performances that amuse, entertain and enlighten, but it is doubtful that any are as compelling and powerful as four-year Germantown resident Cymande (“Mandy”) Lewis’ “My Name is Sam Johnson,” a one-woman autobiographical portrait of strength overcoming adversity.
Lewis, now 37, has a most unusual personal history. Named for a rock group, Cymande was born in Abington, but her mother was unable to care for her and her brother, so they were sent to Vermont to be raised by a family friend. “It was hard fitting in with a name like Cymande,” she recalled, “so I changed my name to Sam for short. After my brother left, I was the only African American kid in the school. It often felt like I was the only one in the entire state!”
Much worse than feeling alone and lost in school because of her race was the treatment she received at home from “Auntie,” her caregiver who resented her presence. “Auntie was a hard woman who believed in ‘spare the rod will spoil the child,’ so she was both physically and emotionally abusive.
“That was just how she ‘raised’ kids except for her own precious son, whom she never hit. When she raised us, she was already well into her late 60s or early 70s. She was from the deep south and from a large family. She was short, fat and chewed tobacco. We spent most of our years with Auntie in Vermont.”
Mandy and her brother were both abused, but Mandy does not talk much about his experiences out of respect for him. “One morning,” said Mandy, “Auntie threatened to cut his hand off with a meat cleaver before school because he grabbed a glass wrong.”
The cruel abuse continued until Mandy was a freshman in high school. “I reported it to school officials, but after speaking with the principal, nurse and social worker, nothing was done. My voice was lost, yet again.”
The long-term effects of the abuse on Mandy, now a divorced single mother, have been incalculable. Besides being riddled with self doubt, depression and low self-esteem, she worries that her scars will impact her sons, Cyncere Jeramiah, 6, a student at Philadelphia Christian Academy, and Chandler Michael, 1.
“So I try to do everything in my power to protect them from the world, and I make sure they know how much they are loved. I talk to them a lot about what to expect in life and how they should be treated. At some point I stopped blaming Auntie and recognized that my choices are my own; however, it is important to me to understand why I do things so that I can continue to grow.”
After returning to the Delaware Valley at age 14, Mandy went on to graduate from Upper Moreland High School and then from Temple University in 1998, after which she toured the U.S. with a children’s theatre.
“I was able to see a lot of the country, and I actually was paid to perform, which was amazing, but after four years I began to miss my family, so I came home to Philadelphia.”
Mandy has continued to work as an actress and playwright, but that does not pay the bills, so for the last two years she has been a Health Service Specialist at Bravo Health Insurance Company. She helps insured clients after they are released from hospital stays. The job has afforded her the opportunity to go back to school to work towards an MBA degree.
Mandy’s theatrical projects have included “Tenderheaded Diaries,” “Jersey Girl,” “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Life with Alicia.” She wrote monologues for “Tenderheaded Diaries,” which was originally performed at The Painted Bride and was later staged at several colleges.
She was in “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Ritz Theatre in Oaklyn, NJ. “Life with Alicia” is a television concept for which Mandy was the co-creator, co-writer, producer and actor. “Jersey Girl” was Mandy’s only motion picture “day player” role. “It was great being on the set with Ben Affleck,” she said, “but I discovered that my passion was still the stage.”
“My Name is Sam Johnson,” Lewis’ first project as a playwright, was aided by a $2,500 grant from the Leeway Foundation. (It was her second grant.) The play took her six months to write, and it was first performed last year at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival and then again this February at Temple University’s Ambler campus, where it was very well received.
Mandy has been invited to Chicago to perform it and possibly San Diego as well. As part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, it will be staged Sept. 20, 21, 22, 8 p.m., at the Tree House Books, 1430 West Susquehanna Ave.
Mandy’s brother, by the way, whose name is being withheld, is doing well. He lives in Williamsport, PA, has a beautiful family and is “an amazing father.” He is a corrections officer, “and I am so proud of him,” said Mandy.
“My Name is Sam Johnson” chronicles the life of an African-American girl growing up in an abusive family. The audience meets Cymande as an adult who has recently become a mother for the second time. She finds herself revisiting an abusive childhood, recounting stories that are funny and heartbreaking but full of hope.
“It’s about someone who wants and needs to be heard, someone who wants to be believed, someone who is at a point in her life where she is still trying to find her voice,” Lewis said. “I have found my own voice through this piece.”
Mandy’s ultimate hope for “Sam Johnson” is to be able to take it on tour here in the tri-state area and eventually to Broadway. “I want this play to be a vehicle for change,” she said. “We need to start talking about the pain our children are facing at the hands of some adults. If we talk about it, then maybe we can begin to help them and stop the abuse!
“Just this week a two-year-old lost his life at the hands of a parent. That child had no voice and now will never be able to find one. Maybe my story can help someone like that before it is too late. It’s uncomfortable to talk about this subject, but we have to talk about it if we are going to affect change. Art has the power to heal.”
Do to the recent storm, the location of the play was changed from the historic Germantown Theater to the Tree House Books. This article was updated Sept. 20.