Mary Jade Learned Wins Prize for Play Arm in Arm

Mary Jade “MJ” Learned, a rising senior at First Assembly Christian School, won Playhouse on the Square’s 4th annual Play Slam! 10-Minute Young Playwright’s Festival Competition. Learned’s play, Arm in Arm, is an original script responding to this year’s theme, “What Hope Looks Like.” Arm in Arm went on to be named runner-up in the American Alliance for Theatre & Education (AATE) Playwrights for Change National Competition.

In Learned’s play, Vera, a fifteen-year-old girl, and Toni, a middle-aged woman, have a chance encounter after Toni notices the scars on Vera’s arm. The scene starts with the two sitting on a park bench in the midst of their conversation. Vera talks about high school assemblies about mental health and suicide prevention. The following excerpt of Learned’s script details what happened next:

VERA: When was the first time you- you felt like someone actually cared?

TONI: The first time I felt like someone genuinely cared was in a Sally Beauty store. I was sixteen years old. I was wearing a tank top and you could see the scars going down my arms. They were like the rungs on a ladder, pretty hard to miss. People would see them wherever I went, even if it was just to the grocery store. Some would stare and some would quickly look away, but it never mattered because I was convinced that everyone was just going to ignore them. I mean, that’s what they did for years, until this day, of course. This lady approached me while my friend and I were browsing the hair dye. She had to be about fifty to sixty years old, and she was wearing a yellow sweater. That’s one of the first things I recognized about her- this yellow sweater. She comes up to me and just asks if she can give me a hug. I didn’t really know what to say, so I just said yes. This lady, this stranger, just held me for a whole minute. I counted- sixty whole seconds. When she let go, she held my hands and she looked into my eyes like no one had before. She looked into my eyes and saw the years of hurt and denial and death, and she embraced it. She didn’t judge or pity me; she accepted me. She asked me, “Do you know how I know you’ve been hurting?” “No,” I said. I knew what she was referring to, but I was too shocked to say anything else. No one had ever said anything or approached me or given me a hug like she had. They all just silently acknowledged it and moved on. She placed her hand over my scars and she said, “This. This is how I know.” I almost started to cry. I had never felt recognized like that before. All the pastors and school counselors and motivationalists had only given me a crumb of tenderness compared to the feast of empathy this woman offered me at the drop of a hat. She showed me her own scars as she told me that I was going to be something great.

Arm in Arm by Mary Jade Learned
Excerpted with permission

With Toni’s offering of empathy and Vera’s acceptance of Toni’s experience, the play concludes on a hopeful note with Vera accepting Toni’s offer of her business card in case she wants to talk again.

Learned, who has been writing since middle school, said her script was inspired by “a real-life experience I had in a Sally Beauty store, as well as the world around me and how it made me feel. At first, I had no intention to write the script at all, but then I remembered the interaction I had with this lady in the store and I decided to write about it.”

The five finalists of Playhouse’s contest had their works publicly read by local area actors on the Evergreen Theatre stage. Learned recalled her reaction to hearing her script read onstage as “overjoyed and a little emotional. “The actors did a fantastic job portraying the characters,” said Learned, “and it meant so much to be able to see my writing come to life on stage.”

Arm in Arm will be recognized at AATE’s National Conference in Rhode Island in late July 2022.

Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and the Manager of Programs and Associate Editor at StoryBoard Memphis. A historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.

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