“Hi! I’m Brie, and I’m a poopaholic.”
So begins one Independence woman’s peculiar story of reclamation, hope, courage, comedy … and crap (Those of you holding your noses right now needn’t bother to read further. For the rest of you who can stomach the scatological, you may be inspired. Read on.).
It took nearly two years for Brie Henderson to come to her Alcoholics Anonymous-like admission. The opening salvo to her 2015 monologue “Poops I Did It Again: True Tales of an Angry Colon” marked the first time Henderson pushed her life-altering struggles with ulcerative colitis into the open with hopes that sharing her stomach-churning condition might help others.
After the success of that award-winning show at the Kansas City Fringe Festival, Henderson, 31, returns with a sequel of sorts: “The Taming of the Poo,” a collection of monologues based on people who, after hearing her plight, told her of their own troubles with similar conditions.
Henderson’s journey began four years ago when she says she went from being “a normal human being” to suddenly experiencing wildly erratic bowel movements. An aspiring actress preparing for a big role, she at first chalked up the change to nerves. But after weeks of using the restroom so frequently she began to suffer from exhaustion and dehydration, Henderson made a trip to the emergency room. After days of supervision, quarantine (infectious diarrhea, they thought) and a colonoscopy, doctors had an answer.
Ulcerative colitis, or “UC,” is a chronic disease of the large intestine that causes the colon to become inflamed and lined with ulcers. According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, UC affects more than 900,000 Americans and is the result of an abnormal immune system response that mistakes food and other harmless bacteria for foreign invaders. The body sends a rush of white blood cells to the intestines, thus inflaming them.
There are many symptoms — crampy abdominal pain, loose and bloody stools and as with Henderson, persistent diarrhea.
“I was pooping probably 20 times a day,” Henderson says as she sips an iced vanilla latte at a downtown coffee shop. She’s wearing a white dress that she’s chosen to accent with a poop emoji necklace and matching earrings.
She says she also suffered from terrible stomach cramps, was forced to eliminate roughage, salads and a swath of other foods from her diet.
“And I’d be pooping my pants,” Henderson adds with a wide-eyed gaze. “All the time.”
There was that time she had an accident while sitting in the front row at the Kansas City Music Hall during “Motown: The Musical.” And another while out to dinner with friends. And another while driving. “With colitis, when you have to go, you don’t have a say,” she says.
Eventually, Henderson, who had been involved in the theater since she was a kid, thought she should write a one-woman story about her troubles.
“I’m an actress — my life is an open book. I just wanted to do a funny show and make people laugh,” she says. “When I was thinking about this story I was like, ‘I can do this. I can make this entertaining.’ … That’s where ‘Poops’ came from.”
Her show debuted at the 2015 Kansas City Fringe Festival, known as a haven for avant-garde theater and art. “You need to make the best of your situation and not give up and not let it defeat you,” Henderson says.
The 45-minute production would go on to win Best of Fringe Fest and lead to more performances (in L.A. and at New York’s International Fringe Festival in 2016).
It also led to more poop.
“After every show I did, even in LA or New York, complete strangers would find me on the internet or come to me after the show and be like, ‘Oh my God, this one time at Walmart …” Henderson says.
There were people suffering from UC, or irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease. “People really want to talk about it,” Henderson says. “I didn’t realize how embarrassed people were about these issues, how alone they felt and how they needed someone to talk about it.”
Recognizing the need for a forum where people could share their issues, Henderson began asking to turn those stories into monologues for the stage.
“My first show was my therapy,” Henderson says. “After I made it public what I go through all the time, I didn’t have to be embarrassed anymore. I addressed the issue and put it out there so people can’t think I’m weak or sick, they can just recognize it’s a part of who I am. This is what I want for other people — to just be happier and more comfortable with themselves and realize it’s just a part of life.”
Last April, surgery corrected much of the problem, and life today for Henderson is a bit more normal. But still, Henderson knows there is a need for her stories. That’s why she is returning to Fringe Fest to debut her latest comedic poo-production.
With “The Taming of the Poo,” Henderson along with her producer has selected 15 stories from the more than 50 she’s received in the last two years and enlisted a crew of actors (men and women ranging from 12 to mid-70s) to perform each monologue.
Local theater critic Bob Evans gave her one of the 15 stories she chose, one of his most “embarrassing stories ever,” he says. “Imagine being stricken with the flu during a KU game at Allen Fieldhouse,” he says with a laugh. Henderson inspired him to step outside of his comfort zone: “I thought she was very brave for what she did and I applauded how forthcoming she has been talking about something that most people don’t feel comfortable. … If Brie can tell her story in an honest way, I can tell mine.”
It’s exactly the kind of impact Henderson wants to elicit dabbling in such a taboo topic:
“I want people to realize it’s not that big of a deal and it’s not that big of a stigma,” she says. “Everybody is dealing with some kind of crap — mine just happens to be of the literal variety.”
Brie Henderson’s “The Taming of the Poo” will be performed at City Stage at Union Station at 7:30 p.m. July 22, 4:30 p.m. July 23, 10:30 p.m. July 25, 7:30 p.m. July 27 and 9 p.m. July 29.
The 13th annual festival runs July 20-30 at various venues. Attendees must purchase a $5 Fringe button. Tickets to each event are an additional $10. Visit kcfringe.org. Information and tickets are also available at the venues, at the Fringe 411 Boutique in Union Station during the festival or by calling 816-359-9195.