Sarah Terez Rosenblum (@SarahTerez) is an MFA-holding writer, teacher and Spinning instructor. She's also the Theater Listings Editor for Centerstage Chicago. Look for her posts twice a week.
If Chicago Actor Mierka Girten is associated with MS, it’s by choice. Diagnosed while studying acting at DePaul, Girten hit bottom shortly after when her mother was found to have MS as well. Though the trauma drove her to attempt suicide, she emerged from a four-day coma ready not only to reclaim her life but to help others. Says Girten, “I wrote my one person play, ‘Without Wings,’ and once that was up and running, it was sort of like, well what are we gonna do with [the revenue]? We should give it to other artists.”
In 1999, Girten began Mookie Jam, her not-for-profit foundation which raises money to benefit artists with MS. “I didn’t realize how big it would get,” Girten says, “the passion people had, and how people look forward to it. I get e-mails saying ‘when’s the next Jam? I can’t wait to go, I’m gonna bring my mom.’ That to me is cool, if you’re gonna bring your mom I know you like me.”
Since then, the Jam has grown to become a Chicago mainstay, raising over $50,000 since its inception. While past awardees have included “visual artists, poetry slammers, a writer, an actress, a silk-screener and painter,” this year’s recipient, Stacey Anderson, a silversmith, found her vocation as a result of her diagnosis. “Art is subjective,” says Girten, “so who am I to say that your crocheting is not art? But you have to live to do what you do. Stacey always wanted to learn how do make jewelry and thought ‘now I can, because I could be in a wheel chair tomorrow and I can do this sitting down.’ ”
As for how Stacey was chosen, Girten says while “her jewelry is magnificent,” Stacey’s answers to the board’s questions were initially restrained. So Girten “had to ask more hard to answer questions like, ‘What are your fears, how did it actually feel to get diagnosed?’ I’m on this board with amazing people, but I’m the only person who has MS, so to build a relationship with her [they need more than] clinical responses. They’re going to be standing up there with her that night, handing her a check, and she’ll be crying and they’ll be hugging, so they need to see she’s something more than a diagnosis.”
And knowing Girten, the evening will be more a celebration than a staid gala.
“I wasn’t always funny,” she says, “but now I’m in my 40s and I don’t care what anyone thinks. Well, I sort of do, because I’m an actor, but I think if I’m in a good mood, my body feels better and nothing makes me feel better than being around people who crack me up. I’m going to be making fun of MS; two girls from A Red Orchid Youth Ensemble are going to perform. I said to Larry [Grimm], their teacher, I need two girls and one must be a brunette, cause that’s just how I am. They’re wearing brain costumes and they’re either going to be MS or they’re going to be brains affected by MS.”
Asked what aspects of the lineup excite her, Girten responds, “All of them. David Cerda will be doing Joan Crawford, The Factory Theater is doing a bit of [their show] ‘League of Awesome,’ which means they’re going to get up onstage and beat the crap out of people. Rebecca Finnegan has been at every Jam for 10 years, and she can sing anything, and Shawn Christopher, she’s gonna take us to church a couple times. We should all go to church at least once.”
And we should all go to Mookie Jam, too.