“Transformational person” is the official label for Valley actor Osiris Cuen’s part in “The Yellow Boat,” Childsplay’s life-and-death drama for young audiences.
Basically, that’s a fancy term for utility player. The 25-year-old ASU grad juggles multiple secondary roles — a doctor, a mom — in the award-winning play about an 8-year-old boy dying of AIDS. But “transformational person” means more than that for Cuen, as the Tempe troupe’s latest show marks a new chapter in her own life-changing drama.
Nearly a year ago, Cuen suffered a traumatic brain injury and a broken pelvis in a car accident. She struggled to speak and even to comprehend what was going on around her as she recovered in the hospital and then a rehab facility. But now, with help from a supportive community theater, she’s making a comeback.
“Childsplay is doing a really good job of nurturing me back to health,” Cuen said. “They have put a lot into me, and I really appreciate that, because that’s not something you get from every theater company — or every job.”
Many of the people who donated more than $18,000 to a crowdfunding campaign were Childsplay artists and staffers, as well as parents of children that Cuen has taught in the company’s theater classes.
“That has been enough to sustain me to where I didn’t have to rush and get a job because I was worried about rent or anything like that,” Cuen said. “So because of that money, I got time to heal mentally and emotionally.”
It took only a moment of distraction to derail Cuen’s trajectory as an up-and-coming performer. Last April, she was starring in Childsplay’s school tour for “The Smartest Girl in the World.” On April 16, she was driving with her older sister, Genesis Cuen, and singing along to Rihanna’s “ANTI (Deluxe)” album.
“That I kind of remember, but I don’t know if just because someone told me, I think I remember it,” Cuen said. “But that’s very in our character, me and Genesis. Of course we’d be listening to Rihanna — or ‘Hamilton’” (that, of course, is the hit hip-hop musical about America’s Founding Fathers).
Genesis Cuen said she remembers that her sister took a moment to drink from a water bottle and ended up running a red light at Thomas Road and 19th Avenue in Phoenix. They were T-boned by a van, leaving their car looking like a crumpled soda can.
Genesis Cuen and the driver of the van also were seriously injured, and all three were taken to the hospital.
Osiris’ friends, including her “Smartest Girl” co-star Jamie Sandomire, were shocked to learn she had sustained a frontal-lobe brain injury, which came with serious cognitive and emotional effects.
“I happened to stumble upon an article detailing the accident and showing this photo of her car and just the horrific nature of what had happened,” Sandomire said. “I couldn’t sleep that night, and the next day a friend and I went to the hospital to see if we could visit her, but she wasn’t awake. So we saw Genesis and talked to her. It was just incredibly scary.”
Genesis Cuen spoke with The Republic three weeks after the accident.
“You can see her personality there, and she’s basically there, just very confused,” she said at the time. “Like she doesn’t really realize what happened. We have remind her all the time. She keeps trying to get up and walk around and do things, and we have to tell her. (But) her sass is still there.”
The weeks after the accident are a blur to Osiris Cuen, who was born in California and lived as a toddler in Mexico before her family moved to Arizona.
“I don’t think I knew that I was having trouble speaking,” she said. “I didn’t even know that … when I woke up, I only spoke in Spanish. They would show me a picture of an umbrella and say, ‘What’s this?’ and I’d be like, ‘Paraguas.’ ”
Months of therapy (physical, occupational and speech) followed. She joined a support group for people with traumatic brain injuries, or TBI.
The hardest part, Cuen said, was when she came home from the rehab center.
Among the common effects of a frontal-lobe injury are bouts of depression and anger, both of which got worse when she found herself home alone while her partner and friends were all at work.
Cuen said she warned Childsplay director Dwayne Hartford about these issues when he offered her a part in “The Yellow Boat.”
“I just asked that he wouldn’t baby me,” she said. “And he was like, ‘No, of course not. I’m going to push you.’ ”
“The Yellow Boat,” first performed in 1993, is Childsplay founder David Saar’s critically acclaimed play inspired by his son, Benjamin, a hemophiliac who contracted HIV in the early days of the AIDS scare. It’s emotional material in any circumstance, but Cuen said she was overwhelmed in the first week of rehearsal. She especially related to the feelings of loneliness experienced by the characters, whose personal tragedy made them feel isolated from their community.
Cuen still struggles with roller-coaster emotions, but she said the past year has given her a new appreciation of life’s opportunities. She’s looking forward to marking April 16 as her “first rebirth day.” And while she was recovering at home, she got serious about writing, working on scripts for two plays for young audiences.
One, called “Gabriela y Frida,” is inspired by her experience after the accident and the connection she felt with the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — whose artistic journey was famously shaped by her own injuries in a bus crash.
“After the accident, I got what I like to call ‘Hamilton’ syndrome,” Cuen said. “You know, ‘Why do you write like you’re running out of time?’ And that’s how I feel. I now have a new outlook on life, because I’m very aware of my mortality. And a lot of people don’t become aware of their mortality till they’re much older.
“It might sound morbid, like, ‘I could die at any moment,’ but it’s what I think is really pushing me to do more and just continue doing what I’m doing and keep improving. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, I’ll get to that next year,’ I’m like, ‘No, I need to do it now, because maybe next year is not promised.’ ”