How one sister’s fight with cancer inspired an original play

The cast of "Blind Faith" reading their scripts in Tucker Hall in front of a full audience on Sunday.
Photo Submitted by Alexis Gollman.

Valencia Matthews, dean of the College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities at FAMU, received some earth-shattering news 25 years ago. Patsy, her sister, was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer and was told she only had one year to live.

Patsy lost her vision and her ability to walk. In the midst of taking care of her sister and ensuring she had everything, she needed, Matthews and their family members rarely talked about her sister’s loss of vision.

“Because they told her she had a year to live, we were dealing with that. We didn’t even have time to deal with the blindness, other than to continue to take care of her,” said Matthews.

After Matthews’ sister died she often wrestled with the question of how her sister felt when she lost her vision. She also would question how other sighted people she encountered handled becoming blind.

“It always stuck in my mind … over the years as I saw sighted people go blind I realized that the curiosity was there because of what happened to my sister,” Matthews said.

Matthews has been a full-time faculty member at FAMU for 26 years, and throughout her time in Tallahassee she has seen countless people become blind — on campus, and in the community.

“It was just very interesting to me what was happening with them as they confronted this very dramatic change in their lives,” said Matthews. “And so, I would always wonder about it: what are they feeling, what are they thinking, same thing for people that are in their families, what are they feeling what are they thinking, how are they dealing with it?”

Her encounters with visually impaired people over the years have prompted her to document and chronicle their stories in the form of an original play “Blind Faith.”

The play takes an artistic approach to inform the public about the visually impaired and blind communities with some elements of comedy. It clarifies common misconceptions about the community as well as tells people about the causes and signs of vision loss.

This past weekend there was a reading of “Blind Faith” as an introduction to the play.

“It is an opportunity for the performers to share information and the script without having learned all the lines,” said Matthews about the reading. “… It is usually the first step in further development of a piece.”

It is also a part of the FAMU Essential Theatre “Writing for Life” series. The series enables new and established playwrights to present their scripts in an open forum. It allows the playwrights to get direct feedback from the audience after the readings.

FAMU First Lady Sharon Robinson was one of many audience members who learned it is best to let blind people be as independent as possible.

“I’m more aware of taking a step back and waiting to assist someone who is visually impaired. It made me aware that they have it,” said Robinson “They’re in control of their situation and I just need to wait for their cue instead of just jumping in and assuming they need my help.”

Others in attendance found the reading motivating regarding bettering their health and taking certain precautions to prevent visual impairment like Ken Plummer, who has diabetes.

“The medical component that came out of this presentation tonight … I think that was absolutely outstanding as a part of this production because we don’t know and don’t always take seriously the implications of the medical things that are going on with us and how it can, in fact, lead to this very thing that can be prevented,” said Plummer after learning about the causes of visual impairment. “I am a diabetic; it is another thing that says to me no matter how seriously that I take that I am a diabetic now I need to ramp it up and get even more serious about it.”

The reading of "Blind Faith" was just the beginning for Matthews. She hopes that in a year the development of the play will progress.

“This is the one that we are kind of lifting up and trying to move to another level so hopefully in another year or so it’ll take flight in a different kind of way,” said Matthews about the future of “Blind Faith.”

Matthews hopes people gain enough knowledge about the visually impaired community to feel comfortable enough to discuss the challenges that some people may perceive to be disabilities. She also hopes people will be able to freely speak with those individuals and learn from them without feeling uncomfortable.

“I think when you find yourself in a setting where perhaps you were uncomfortable before and you become more knowledgeable about it, it makes it easier for you and I think as well for the other person,” said Matthews. “We all have value and that we all have things to offer … don't minimize individuals due to their challenges or disabilities and so as one of the guys (in “Blind Faith) says, ‘We're visually challenged …but I make lemonade out of lemons.’”