“Every Brilliant Thing” is the Mental Health Play That Did It Right

“If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once having felt crushingly depressed,
then you probably haven’t been paying attention.”
-Duncan Macmillan, “Every Brilliant Thing”

I’m always wary of shows that claim to be about mental health. Call me a depressed Grinch, but in my almost 11 years of being a mental health advocate, whenever I come across a TV show or movie that aims to represent our community, it often falls short. I’ve lost count of the times it came off as sensationalized or glamorized.

My ideal show about mental health needs to tick off this list:

I want the depressed character to be relatable and far from the typecast emo or violent people that Hollywood misconstrues them to be.

I want the audience to see the sides of both the depressed and the loved ones caring for them.

I want psychological understanding or at least compassion to be eased into the plot.

I want the show to educate, not further misinform, about suicide.

I want the person struggling in the audience to feel that they’re not alone.

I want help to be available after the show and not just an afterthought for the sake of waving that trending mental health flag.

A tall order, I know. Venti mocha frappuccino with two shots of espresso and lots of whipped cream on top, please.

Duncan Macmillan’s “Every Brilliant Thing” stars Teresa Herrera, alternating with Kakki Teodoro and Jon Santos, directed by Jenny Jamora and produced by Toff De Venecia of The Sandbox Collective.

‘Night, Mother was a product of its time, the ’80s, so it might not sit well with the Gen Z audience. I hated 13 Reasons Why (2017) but loved Pixar’s Inside-Out (2015) and Dear Evan Hansen (2015 stage version). The latter’s 2021 film version did not deserve the flack that nearly nullified the impact of the Broadway version.

And then here comes Every Brilliant Thing, Duncan McMillan’s one-person play originally published in 2013 and brought to the stage in NYC in 2016. I skipped it when it was first staged by The Sandbox Collective in the Philippines in 2019. Forgive me, but I scoffed at the premise without even giving it a chance, without reading much about it. Or maybe my wounded heart was afraid it would be like 2012 again—the year I first joined the mental health community and was shunned by my friends who rolled their eyes and bystanders who used my story as gossip fodder.

A new set of friends invited me to watch this 2023. I said yes but with a guarded heart. I, the elder (nay, geriatric!) millennial, entered the Maybank Theater with the lowest expectations. I thought this might be one of those ‘Just think positive!’ platitudes thrown to the faces of depressed and bipolar people. It’s been thrown to my face one too many times.

The 2023 friends. Thank you for inviting me to watch.

Enter Kakki Teodoro, one of the three actors alternating the role (the other two are Teresa Herrera and Jon Santos). Kakki is dressed in a pink top, representing her bright, gregarious persona that permeated the venue before the show even started. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the cheeriest, funniest of them all carries the heaviest load.

The show begins with a voiceover telling us that this Philippine adaptation of Every Brilliant Thing collaborated with Mental Health PH, one of the groups I’ve met in the past, one of the few that I trust. The soothing voice said that if you get triggered by the play, you may speak with one of the group’s volunteers after the show. My iced heart began to thaw, and so has the fourth wall. I’m in an actual safe space and not the false promise of one.

Aside from “Every Brilliant Thing,” the twin-bill ticket gives you a seat to Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs,” directed by Caisa Borromeo, starring Reb Atadero and Sab Jose, alternating with Bryan Sy and Justine Peña. It follows the relationship between a man and a woman attempting to get pregnant while considering the environmental impacts of birth. Like EBT, this poignant and intimate play will tug at your heartstrings.

Kakki, speaking to the audience sans the fourth wall, is the child with no name. She’s an adult now, but flashes back to different stages of her life, starting at the age of 7 when she deals with her mother’s first suicide attempt. The child spends her days jotting down a list of brilliant things in life, in hopes that it will raise the spirits of her clinically depressed mother.

Why am I crying already? I grab a tissue, hoping nobody sees me at the back wiping the first tear trickling down my face.

As her character grows up in what seems to be the ’90s, she tries to understand her mother’s depression and what drives people to attempt or complete suicide. She comes across studies about how the media plays a huge role in suicide contagion. As she talks about how the media should responsibly report on suicide, infographics are flashed on the screens.

I remember writing similar articles like that for years. I tried to educate my friends and fellow journalists, only for it to fall on mostly deaf ears. To see people actually paying attention to this poignant part of mental health advocacy gives me hope, so much hope.

To those who have seen the play, did you notice that together with the seat numbers, there were postcards on each chair? Each postcard features artwork by the members of Mental Health PH. Most viewers left it there. I stayed a while to pick up a few more for myself.
I was happy to find out that for the final weekend of “Every Brilliant Thing,” they’re staging it in full Filipino, starring Jon Santos. “Bawat Bonggang Bagay” is the Filipino translation by Guelan Luarca. I hope this reaches a bigger audience, specifically the wider demographic that seeks help and support from our local mental health groups. I see them reaching out daily in the forums.

For 90 straight minutes, Kakki charms the audience with a mix of her acting prowess and crowd work, allowing the members of the intimate venue to be part of the interactive play, and effectively making them connect deeper with the subject matter at hand. The original material is in English, but Kakki’s wit and improv skills make the play more relatable to a Taglish-speaking audience.

Kakki would switch from hilarious antics with belly laughs to a harrowed face multiple times throughout the play. And then it hits me: More than her brilliant acting skills, Kakki’s connection to the material is genuine. I know that look.

I scan the audience to find other similar faces with choked-back tears. I wonder which part of the community they represent.

Did they care for a suicidal loved one? Did they have relatives, like the child’s father, who had little idea on how to handle an adult’s mental health condition, let alone parent a child that badly needed guidance and healthy communication? Did they go through depression and felt that there was nothing left to live for? Like the child’s love interest, did they, too, find empathy in the unlikeliest of people? Like the naïve child, did they desperately try to cheer up their depressed loved one with things like positive notes scribbled on colorful pieces of paper? Did they, too, lose someone they loved to suicide?

Or like me, were they all of the above?

The play ended with a well-deserved standing ovation. As the crowd eased out of the venue, I desperately pushed my way to find Jenny Jamora, the director.

She was my teacher in a Trumpets musical theater workshop back in 2010. It was two years before I lost the love of my life to suicide, two years before I founded the Facebook group, “Survivors of Suicide and Depression PH,” and two years before I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

“It’s been a while,” she told me. I responded with tears. I tried my best to summarize what happened in my life from 2012 to this day. Just like the child crying to her teacher, Mrs. Patterson, and her dog sock puppet, I cried to my teacher Jenny.

“I’m in a good place now,” I reassured her. I found my 1,000,001 brilliant things.

Me and my teacher, Jenny Jamora. Pardon the puffy faces. Tears were shed.

She introduced me to Kakki Teodoro, the cheerful soul in pink. I asked if her emotions onstage came from a real place of knowing or loving someone who has battled depression. She said yes. We hugged.

Between sobs, I told them both, “Thank you for doing this right.”

Catch the twin bill of Duncan Macmillan’s “Every Brilliant Thing” and “Lungs” until July 16, 2023. Buy tickets via Ticketworld and The Sandbox Collective.

For my master list of mental health resources in the Philippines, click here.