Kendra Cunningham is a good human being. Or, at any rate, she’s trying hard to be one. Growing up in a Catholic, Irish-Lithuanian-American household, she began saying affirmations at age 13. Her favorite is “I love and adore myself,” a motto that has apparently morphed into a full-blown mantra to counter her frequent self-doubts. At her Don’t Tell Mama comic monodrama This Could Be You (directed by Tanya Moberly), printed cards are placed on audience members’ tables with additional affirmations (mine was about open-mindedness). Onstage, propped on the piano, are various self-help books—further evidence of Cunningham’s campaign to make herself a better, more centered person.
She arrives on the stage wearing a sparkling Caribbean-blue dress and an equally sparkling attitude. Her demeanor is friendly and warm. There’s a halting quality in her delivery at times that is oddly appealing—it’s as though she is confiding in you and wants to find just the right words. Her comedy depends on a fairly deadpan delivery, but she sometimes breaks into a sweet, sudden smile, as if the words just out of her mouth have genuinely tickled her. She is one of the least angry comedians I’ve seen. She can harp on her upbringing, her less-than-stellar relationships with men, and her failure to live up to the standards she has set for herself, but there’s a gentleness about it all that is endearing.
Cunningham is from Boston, and she sounds like it. A scrappy, working-class spirit infuses her humor. Her show has much to do with her wacky family: a grandmother who turned the dust jackets of all the books on her shelves inside out; a mother who bartered valiantly for a used butter dish at a yard sale; and a father whose idiosyncrasies apparently went beyond mere wackiness. The show turns out to be largely about her relationship with Dad, a man who believed kids should run sprints on weekend mornings while wearing plastic garbage bags to enhance perspiration. She jokes early on that when she began seeing a therapist, she aspired to be diagnosed with something more exotic than a daddy issue. But, she concedes, “You can call any issue a daddy issue.”
In the latter part of the show, Cunningham details her therapy sessions and talks about jumping into the dating pool (the material gets more than a bit racy at places). She describes the death and funeral of her father, and reveals that she had been estranged from him for some time before his passing. Something gets glossed over here, and it keeps the arc of her story from being as effective as it might be. Perhaps she felt that details of the estrangement were too dark and/or unfunny to include, but the tale she tells seems a bit jagged and truncated without such elaboration.
Cunningham has a history as a stand-up performer, but a show like this one aims to be more than that—more than just flurries of jokes on a theme. I hope that she’ll continue to work with Moberly to fine-tune her script and to adjust the narrative so that it has a more satisfying beginning, middle, and end. She’s engaging, she has a unique point of view, and her voice deserves to be heard. I wish her well in making This Could Be You stronger and more cohesive.
This Could Be You
Don’t Tell Mama – May 17, June 21; returning September 13, October 25, November 29, December 13