Theatre major Jennifer Lucas O’Briant has had one whirlwind of a Fall semester.
The non-traditional student, who says her true freshman year took place around the time many of today’s students were born, recently returned to full-time studies on the UofSC Columbia campus. The path back has been a winding one, seeing her become a wife, a mother, a real estate agent, an actor and, for over a decade, a professional home birth practitioner. Since re-enrolling, however, she’s quickly found her life taken up by rehearsals and memorizing monologues as she’s prepared to take on the role of “Sugar,” the no-holds-barred advice columnist in Tiny Beautiful Things, playing at Longstreet Theatre through November 19.
We spoke with Jennifer shortly before opening night about coming back to school, her unique career as a midwife, and why being cast as Sugar was nothing less than serendipitous.
You have a lot of lines in this show.
Yes, it’s very challenging. It’s also very nerve-wracking when I think about it, so I try not to look at it as the mountain that it is. One of my professors said if you learn the lines by heart that it’ll all come to you, so you truly learn it by heart and, you know, take in what the story is. My husband also said learn the story and the lines will come. I’ve been trying to do both of those things and just really see where Sugar is coming from, offering her advice based on her experiences, and trying to understand where that advice is coming from.
You’re what is termed as a non-traditional student. Can you tell us about your life and career experience before coming to school?
A USC degree for me has not been four consecutive years — it’s been a twisting, turning path to come back to. I started my freshman year right out of high school here at USC. I didn’t know it at the time but my neurodivergency started to really rear its head at the time. I also experienced some trauma that I also didn’t understand how to deal with, so I didn’t do so well that first year. I transferred to USC Aiken, took some classes there and then I came back to USC [Columbia] a second time. I met the man who is now my husband after that process, and then shortly thereafter we had a child and so I became a wife and a mother. And then, in the middle of that, I became a real estate agent. I sold real estate for a while and then I went back to school for a little bit doing correspondence courses.
In the meantime, I kind of quit undergrad because I realized that I didn’t need it to go to midwifery school. It was a completely different kind of track. I studied for seven years to become a Certified Professional Midwife and then I took my national boards and became licensed by this state with DHEC, opened my own practice, and have been serving women and birthing people ever since. When the pandemic hit, I was very busy as a healthcare provider because nobody wanted to have a baby in the hospital last year. I became the crusading homebirth midwife that was really excited about using my trade to serve my community during a crisis. I burned right out, as a lot of health care workers have, and so I’m taking some time off that and decided it was a good time to come back to school.
It’s the way that Sugar speaks through her grief and her own experiences and tells people, “This is what I have learned, and these lessons were hard learned, so I want to offer that advice to someone else.” The way that she talks honestly and openly to people to help them on their path really resonated with me. It’s how I try to speak to my clients. I try to help them avoid the bad experiences that I experienced.
What drew you to practicing midwifery?
I experienced some trauma myself after I had my first daughter. The child birthing process was very scary for me. It was something where I just kind of handed over my healthcare, my body, to a group of people, to a group of men, and it turned into a surgery that I felt was unnecessary. I was 21 when I had my first child and, after that happened, I couldn’t stop reading about how it could have been different. I had a friend who had had a home birth and I just became obsessed and very hyper focused on getting more information about the different ways to give birth. I was reading, I was studying, I was researching just on my own. I had a home birth with my second and it was the most empowering experience that I’ve ever had. I was so passionate about all the information that parents don’t know. There’s a saying that if you don’t know your options, you don’t have any, and I just became fixated on getting this information to as many people as I could. I became very passionate about it and decided first to become a doula — that is, a child birthing advocate and support person during labor. I worked as a doula for 10 years while I was studying to become a midwife and then became a Certified Professional Midwife so that I could offer to other women what someone had offered to me.
Coming to college later in life takes an adventurous spirit and a similar spirit of adventure is in many ways what informs Sugar to take on her advice column in Tiny Beautiful Things. Do you think you and Sugar are similar in that way?
Yes, to all the above! I said once that I didn’t know that I would be good for the role, but I knew that the role was perfect for me. It’s the way that Sugar speaks through her grief and her own experiences and tells people, “This is what I have learned, and these lessons were hard learned, so I want to offer that advice to someone else.” The way that she talks honestly and openly to people to help them on their path really resonated with me. It’s how I try to speak to my clients. I try to help them avoid the bad experiences that I experienced. I try to help them see the benefit of the hard work that will get them to where they want to be. I love how she says, “Don’t lament so much over your career. You don’t have a career; you have a life.” I’ve really taken that quote to heart because the same could be said about my academic career.
Your life in other people’s eyes doesn’t matter. You should honor your path. You should live your truth and not worry so much about the institutionalized degree or the credentials behind your name or the career that your family may have always wanted you to have. It should be about the little moments – your experiences with your fellow man and your friends, and the laughter, and the grief, and the good times, and sharing it with the people you love.
Healing is pain and ugly and scars and wrinkles and age. Healing is going through all the emotions to understand them... Healing is hard work.
Sugar spends the entire play giving some pretty wise advice on several issues. Is there something that portraying Sugar has taught you?
That healing is not pretty – that’s a huge one for me. There’s a monologue she gives about how we think that healing’s going to be pure and perfect, like a baby on his birthday. Healing is not a baby on its birthday when they have no experiences. Healing is pain and ugly and scars and wrinkles and age. Healing is going through all the emotions to understand them and that is something that Sugar talks about that is really hitting home to me. Healing’s not pretty. Healing is hard work.
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever gotten in your life?
That being different can be your superpower. That is something that someone told me at 13 years old. My ADHD has given me a superpower. It has not made it easy for me in many ways, but it’s also made me driven in other ways. Most people don’t have three children and own a small business, and do work that is life and death, and have a drive to perform and create while still maintaining important relationships. I can’t answer every text message, I can’t answer every email. But being different is amazing. It’s what makes art. It’s what makes people creative. If you had everything conforming in every way you couldn’t create something new every time. So, being different is absolutely a plus.
What about this play has affected you the most and what do you think audiences will be most moved by?
I think this is an amazing time to do this play after last year. So many lives were lost last year and so many of us had to grieve other things. There are students that had to grieve their proms and their graduations and their freshman year being normal. My daughter had to grieve her sweet sixteen. This pandemic has rippled out grief to all of us. I don’t think anybody is untouched.
It’s revisiting my own grief and being empathetic and sympathetic to others and their grief. I don’t think anybody gets away free and clear from this show. It will touch them in some way, whether it’s because they are survivors of trauma, or because they are survivors of loss and grief, or because they have little conflicts that worry them. Everyone’s feelings are valid, no matter how little or how big. The play goes from someone not fitting in in the eighth grade to abuse and trauma and tremendous loss. We are all living the human experience. We are all having those conflicts and debates and journeys within ourselves. I think everyone can see a reflection of themselves.
Get tickets for Tiny Beautiful Things online.
“Tiny Beautiful Things" is a story about truly listening and understanding others. The play uses adult language and addresses sensitive topics such as physical/sexual abuse and mortality and is not appropriate for children.