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  • Chris O'Reilly

Spreading a universal message of hope and empowerment with The Pink Hulk

The Pink Hulk is a title few will have passed by in our programme without a second glance and with good reason. This powerful image is the title for a powerful show, which is a must-see at this month’s Gothenburg Fringe.

Valerie David, the Writer and Performer of The Pink Hulk, brings her one-woman play from New York to Gothenburg’s Draken on 24-26 August, where she takes the audience on her journey of overcoming cancer twice, sharing her story in a frank and humorous manner.

Photo credit: Lauren Adler

Valerie’s two bouts with cancer came 15 years apart (first non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and then breast cancer), and it was the second diagnosis that brought out the superhero within and inspired the play’s title.

“I was aware that I was a Pink Hulk during my battle with cancer. When I got it for the second time, I got angry.

“I went to Aruba with my best friend to celebrate being cured of lymphoma. It was my 15th anniversary, and it was an amazing vacation of celebrating this milestone. And then just two months later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I was shocked having been cancer-free for so many years.

“The first time I was scared, then I’m diagnosed with cancer a second time and I’m like ‘What! Again?’ And I got angry – ‘hulked out’ – I think it was the perfect analogy for the show.”

Valerie used this anger in her battle to survive cancer and survival is a trait that runs deep in her family.

“I feel that anger, for me, was a lot more powerful than fear, and it drove me to beat cancer. I was not going to let it get to me, and I wanted to show cancer it did not know whom it was dealing with.

“I come from a family of survivors, who are all superheroes in themselves. My family fled Iraq in 1941 from religious persecution and began a new life in America – which I wrote about in my second solo show The Home We Left Behind.

Determined to be on the stage

“I have been a performer all my life. My first time onstage was when I was 6, as the fourth pig in three little pigs – a part that was created for me!” And then I never stopped acting!”

Valerie moved to New York to pursue her acting career post-college and subsequently graduated from Manhattan’s prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

“I was always determined to have a career in the performing arts; it’s a burning passion for me. Even when I was diagnosed with cancer, I kept on performing.”

Valerie soon realised after her second cancer battle, that she needed to share her story and spread her message.

“After I finished breast cancer treatment, I just had to do this, and I wrote The Pink Hulk in a little over five months.

There were many signs of encouragement that led her to write her solo show. “I went to a writing workshop and Nancy Slonim Aronie, who ran it, and she exclaimed, ‘You are a writer and have a story to tell that will help others.’

“At the Peoples Improv Theater Camp, the head of the camp, Ali Farahnakian, said while I was performing in front of the group ‘I see a solo show in this.’ There were many wonderful influences.”

“I would not be stopped”

Humour plays a major role in this performance and played an equally large part in Valerie’s battle with cancer. In particular, a regular dose of the era-defining sitcom Friends.

“I loved Friends, and I watched it all the time during both battles; it brought such joy. This year, I ran into David Schwimmer (aka Ross) on the street in New York, and I was not going to let that opportunity pass. I told him, ‘You have no idea how much your show helped me through cancer,’ and he put his arm around me and said how much it meant to him.”

Valerie kept performing during her treatment, whenever she had the energy, showing cancer and the world that nothing was going to stop her.

“Throughout cancer treatment, I performed improv, and I even went on an audition two days after major surgery. My mom told me that I shouldn’t go, but I would not be stopped, so she came with me to make sure I was all right. I knew the director and didn’t tell him until months later why my mom came with me to that audition!”

Graphic credit: Rebecca Kalant

Photo credit: Lauren Adler

The Pink Hulk is much more than a piece about cancer – there is a plethora of powerful messages and tough topics addressed in Valerie David’s special way.

“It’s about fighting back, and the humour makes this show unique. It’s racy, it’s sassy – I talk about frank subjects that aren’t often tackled, such as my body image issues, the psychological effects of hair loss from chemo, the weight gain and feeling like cancer robbed me of my womanhood.

Valerie was so afraid that breast cancer was going to take away her identity as a woman that it motivated her quest for love.

“Before I knew which surgery I was going to have, I thought ‘if I’m going to lose my breasts, I may as well try to hook up first.’

“So I called up guys I had dated and asked whether they were interested in “getting together” before the surgery. You’ll have to see The Pink Hulk to see whether I got my happy ending.

“We all try to find love. The Pink Hulk is trying to find someone to love her, hold her and be there. What man or woman doesn’t want to take a chance to be loved?

“We all need a little more love – The Pink Hulk helps give that with its positive message.”

Inspired by the audience

In the two years since it first hit the road, The Pink Hulk has become much more than a play; it has become a movement.

Valerie David holds audience talkbacks after her performances, where she hears stories from those who have come to hear her story.

“I’m learning so much from the audiences, they are inspiring me – it’s so great to hear their stories.

“The Pink Hulk has developed immensely from touring, in part due to these audience talks. The play has morphed and grown, which would not have happened without those wonderful audiences.

“I’ve performed The Pink Hulk in so many different places: in a hotel room, where the audience sat on the bed, in an art gallery, ballroom, the hallway of the nursing department at Rhode Island College, a church basement; and I’ve learned a great deal.

“The interaction with the audience used to be something I feared, but I love it now – it’s like you’re pulling up a chair and sitting across a coffee table with me – it’s a very intimate show.

“Surviving cancer has been the greatest achievement in my life and so has writing this play, being able to spread its universal message of hope and empowerment.”

Prepared for anything

Valerie has plenty of experience on the Fringe scene, often hitting festivals with her performance partner-in-crime, Heather Massie, who is performing ‘HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr.’

Gothenburg Fringe will be the sixth festival they are in together and that is one of the many things that makes the Fringe extra special.

“Performing at Fringe festivals is so much fun. It’s also a wonderful training ground for a performer, because you really have to be prepared for anything and there’s such a great community spirit at them – I really treasure the friends I’ve made through the Fringe circuit.

“I also love raising money for local cancer organisations after my performances, and I look forward to doing that in Gothenburg as well.”

Tickets for the performances of The Pink Hulk on 24-26 August are available here for 100 SEK, or you can see it as part of the Friday Draken Fringe pass, where you can attend four shows for the price of three here. The Pink Hulk is directed by Padraic Lillis.

Graphic credit: Rebecca Kalant

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