T. Renee Garner found out her boyfriend had abandoned her when she saw his name in The Washington Post.
Then she Googled his name and found The Post article, dated the same day their son was born. Her boyfriend happened to have been nearby when a shooting occurred in suburban Maryland. The Post quoted him as a witness. He wasn’t out of state after all.
“That’s when I realized: Uh oh,” Garner said. “That one literally destroyed me.”
From that first sickening moment, Garner has gained tremendous clarity about the disastrous relationship she was in at the time, and a separate relationship that preceded it. Now she’s hoping to share what she’s learned with other women, in the form of a gospel musical.
“You never date somebody that you think you’re going to be abused by,” said Garner, a 46-year-old Internal Revenue Service employee whose show, “The Man Monster,” opens at the Highwood Theatre in Silver Spring, this week. “You can literally stay in bed with somebody because you might not see it. For me, in two separate instances, I didn’t see the change in the relationship.”
Garner’s ex-boyfriend, reached by The Post last week, said he couldn’t discuss the circumstances surrounding the birth of their son because the two are involved in court proceedings. He accused Garner of telling the story to a Post reporter to benefit her in their family court case.
Garner wrote her musical with comedian Howard G, best known as the star of the “Kiss My Bumper” auto insurance ads that ran for years on local TV. The show, which weaves in numerous gospel songs, depicts in scene-by-scene detail the precursors of abuse that women should be alarmed by. Garner hopes its message will reach women like the person she was before that startling article in The Post — and men like the ones she dated.
“I was not embarrassed . . . that I was 40 years old and went through this psychological abuse. How come I didn’t know? I didn’t know because I wasn’t taught. . . . I can own the fact that I didn’t know. I can own the fact that I was looking for love,” she said.
She says the man who abandoned her when their child was born abused her psychologically, not physically.
Her musical, a fictionalized account of her earlier, physically abusive relationship, features a main character named Renee and a vivid supporting cast, who have been given fake names. The secondary characters’ stories include a moving subplot about a marijuana dealer and her precocious son, and a comedic grandmother who leads a rousing gospel song and dance in a beauty salon. But the real focus is on Renee’s husband, Lance, who becomes increasingly controlling — imposing a curfew, cutting off Renee’s access to a bank account, even telling her exactly what she’s allowed to order at KFC.
Lance’s hostility eventually escalates to the final, gripping scenes of violence against Renee. In real life, Garner says she went to the police as soon as her then-fiance first hit and choked her; she obtained a protective order, which he was twice found guilty of violating. In the musical, Renee instead suffers in silence for months, before a haunting crisis that ends the show.
At a rehearsal this week, Howard G, who goes by his stage name while directing the show, admonished the actors to drop the lighthearted antics that carry them through most of the musical during that final scene. “It’s not a comedy anymore,” he said.
The jovial group of actors grew somber. Elwood Klass Ingram, who plays Lance, tried some of his final lines again: “This is what I was taught. He hit my mother. That’s all I knew. I thought that was love,” and Howard G nodded, thinking of those potential abusers who might recognize their own upbringing in those lines. “They might get healing,” he said.
He said the key question to writing and directing this show was: “Is domestic violence funny?”
“I knew I could make light of it, even though it’s a serious matter,” he said. He believes the humor makes the vital message more relatable. He gestured to Ingram. “I want him to reach all the males, all the females in that audience. The guy who does the womanizing does the abusing. He’s telling them what they’re going through.”
For Garner, faith is also central to making that connection. The show starts and ends with scenes of prayer, and is suffused throughout with characters who sincerely lean on their faith, just as Garner herself did when dealing with abuse.
“In the process of elimination and closing those things out, I started to find myself. I started to find my purpose. I started to find my strength,” Garner said. “It’s almost as if God himself wants this story to come out.”
Always exuberant, Garner nearly sings the words when she talks about making the best of her bad situation: “Talk about lem-o-nade!”
Two and a half years since her traumatic labor, she’s healthy, and so is her young son, who darts in and out of the room as the actors rehearse in her Anne Arundel County basement. Her 14-year-old daughter, the child of the man whom the abusive character Lance is based on, does her homework upstairs.
“I’m so ready to move forward and really shine and share,” said Garner, her demeanor relentlessly sunny. “I’m so excited. Just realizing that I was abused, and now that I know that, that that’s what psychological abuse can look like, I’m excited to know that that’s what that was and to help some people.”
She leans against her basement wall, and watches an actress kneel in front of a couch, taking her position for the first scene of the show. That’s the woman portraying her onstage, that woman bent and weeping in supplication to God. Garner is standing outside the spotlight, in a different life, a world away.