In 1999, Sandy Rustin and her family traveled from Chicago to Houston for her father’s bone-marrow transplant at MD Anderson. A recent college graduate at the time, she’d never been to the Bayou City and—like many visitors to Houston—saw only its hospital halls. After her dad’s life-saving procedure, Rustin didn’t revisit that strange chapter of her life until last year, when she wrote a new play, Houston.
“MD Anderson is the Disney World of cancer treatments centers—it’s huge and filled with people experiencing one of the worst times of their lives, juxtaposed with the staff, where this is their normal, everyday routine,” says the New York–based actress (Inside Amy Schumer) and playwright (Rated P…For Parenthood, produced off-Broadway in 2012). “It was such a dramatic setting that made a lasting impression on me, even though it was only one month of my life.”
Houston follows a Jewish family from Chicago similar to Rustin’s, as well as a Muslim family from Jordan based on the family whose patriarch had a bed next to her dad’s. Like the real men they’re based on, both fathers are battling leukemia and need marrow transplants. Under these trying, discombobulating circumstances, unexpected friendships develop.
Rustin remembers her daily interactions with the other family. In particular, she forged a bond with their daughter. At the same time, she was in the throes of a new romance with her now-husband, who was back in Illinois.
Honing in on these two themes—friendship and love—she combined the events, writing a fictional romance between the older offspring of the two families.
“I thought, ‘What would happen if love blossomed between two very different people during a traumatic and trying time?’” says Rustin. “I wanted to explore these experiences through the lens of a universal love story.”
Houston resonated with Jasper Grant, artistic director of New York’s B-Side Productions, which bestowed the work with its second annual New American Musical Award last summer, selecting it from more than 65 submissions. Despite the honor, there’s actually no singing in Houston; the work is really a play with original choreography and music.
“As a play with dance but no singing, Houston stood out from the other submissions,” says Grant. “At its core, it is a universal love story, and it needed to be told.”
Rustin and her team worked with B-Side to develop Houston over a four-month period that culminated in a three-week workshop and preview in Manhattan in late September, which got rave reviews from the sample audience.
Today they’re still refining the play, with hopes of signing on at a theater and presenting it in 2017. When asked about the possibility of a performance in Houston, which Rustin hasn’t visited in 17 years, she loves the idea.
“That would be amazing if we could show the play in Houston,” she says. “It was where both the experience and idea originated, and it would mean so much to go back to Houston and show the play to the community, especially the doctors and nurses at MD Anderson. After all, the story started in those hospital halls.”