Fountain House Meets the Queen of Sheba

Posted on October 27, 2011
Lauren Ambrose and Joan Allen explore the mother/daughter dynamicLauren Ambrose and Joan Allen explore the mother/daughter dynamic 
With its newly developed series of book readings and accompanying events, Fountain House is leading its Board members and councils, donors and supporters, staff and members through an artistic Renaissance. I was present at the second reading that featured the memoir of best-selling author Mark Vonnegut, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So. He was interviewed by NPR’s correspondent Jacki Lyden, an investigative yet sensitive soul who drew out Vonnegut’s life story as well as the role visual art plays in his maintaining his mental health. The reading, interview and Q & A were preceded by a reception at Fountain Gallery which underscored Vonnegut’s commitment to creating art. We at Fountain House hope to see Mr. Vonnegut at other Fountain House functions, and we definitely can’t get enough of Jacki Lyden.

On Monday, October 17th, Fountain House was privileged to present a staged reading of Lyden’s memoir, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba. The benefit performance was held at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, a most comfortable and intimate space for this event. The script was co-written by Lyden and Karen Croner, directed by Daniel Barnz and produced by Susan Cartsonis - talented professionals all.

The actors were stellar: Joan Allen (Face/Off, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum), Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under and an upcoming turn as Fanny Brice in the revival of Funny Girl), Dan Futterman (Angels in America, The Birdcage and nominated in 2005 for an Academy Award for his screenplay Capote), David Aaron Baker (Melinda and Melinda, Kissing Jessica Stein and on television, Law & Order and Boardwalk Empire) and last but not least, Jacki Lyden (who better to perform her story than the memoirist herself?). 

Michiko Kakutani, noted book reviewer for the New York Times wrote that [Daughter of the Queen of Sheba] is "one of the most indelible portraits of a mother-daughter relationship to come along in years, a book that belongs on the shelf of classic memoirs, alongside The Liars' Club by Mary Karr and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt... A book that stands, remarkably, as both a reporter's unsentimental act of recollection and a love letter to an impossible and captivating woman."

Indeed, when Allen, who read the role of Lyden’s mother, proudly proclaims, “I am the Queen of Sheba” and bestows Mesopotamia to her daughter (Ambrose) those of us in the audience knew we were in for a riveting night. It is said there are only seven plots and nothing new under the sun, but Lyden and the other actors showed us a world we don’t see often: that of the families and loved ones who live with mental illness.

It is easy to see how Lyden won, among other awards, the 1990 National Mental Health Association Media Award for investigative reporting. She and her sisters survived the highs and lows of being parentified children, the confusion of misdiagnosis and, finally, coming full circle once their mother’s illness is given its real name (bipolar) and prognosis.

Lyden, who also played herself-as-narrator, walked us through her years of journaling, writing on whatever she could place her hands on, her life as a foreign correspondent who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, her personal life and/or lack of one and her role as caretaker to a beautiful, charming, imaginative mother who could only be counted on to do the unimaginable.

That Lyden has been able to come through the fire of being the daughter of a mother living with mental illness - scorched but not burned - and achieve the success she has is a testament to the resiliency of children and, for better of worse, the mother/daughter bond. As I sat in my aisle seat, listening to this lyrical, heart-wrenching, funny, naked story, I was reminded of my relationship with my mother, and just when the memories came flooding back, I couldn’t help but think how my mother survived me.

Lyden’s family survived and thrived and were in the audience, listening to their lives unfurling on stage: Lyden’s two sister, her husband, and yes, her mother, dressed in the beautiful satin outfit she’d worn to Lyden’s wedding. She was seated in her wheelchair but stood during the Q&A to say, “I wished I had a Fountain House.” It was the line that stole the show, the line that brought tears to my eyes, because it drove home what I have in Fountain House.

The actors are to be commended for their caring professionalism. It was revealed during the discussion following the reading that they’d only had one rehearsal, and that took place the day of the reading. You wouldn’t have known by their interaction with each other. Allen and Ambrose played off each other in syncopation, a mother-daughter rhythm of frustration, competitiveness and love only they can share. Futterman and Baker, whether using some words I won’t/I can’t print here or simply portraying life in the surreal world of Lyden, carried their weight with aplomb.

We should hear more stories like Jacki Lyden’s. We should interview our biological and/or extended families, draw out the sometimes confused love they have for us. We should have Family and Friends’ Nights at Fountain House so that your family and my family and his and her families know that they’re not alone.

Thank you, Jacki Lyden, for walking us down the path less trodden and bringing us safely home.
Davida Adedjouma
Board of Directors and Education Unit, Fountain House

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