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In Performance: a tragically hip cabaret

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If Sara Davis couldn't sing, she'd have had to figure out some other way to deal with the emotional ramifications of having a total hip replacement at age 31--write a memoir, rack up a massive telephone bill, mix Vicodin with gin. Instead she put together a cabaret show about her experience.

"Usually in cabaret you think of some music you want to do, and you build a show around that," says Davis, who's been acting professionally since 1992. "For me it was the opposite: I knew what the subject matter was, but how was I going to find songs about hip replacement surgery?"

She was determined enough that even during the operation (for which she was awake), she talked about her plans to do a show over the noise of "periodic sawing and hammering."

"I'd tell them I'm writing a show, and the nurse is passing it on--'She's writing a play.'" To which Davis would respond, "No, no, it's not a play!"

Davis first started having hip problems in 1987, when she was 17. She woke up a little stiff one morning. By evening the pain was unbearable; she couldn't walk. A blood test indicated she had an infection, but after doctors ran her through practically every other test available, they still couldn't identify what it was. Nevertheless antibiotics seemed to cure it, and Davis wrote the whole episode off as "a freak thing."

During a flare-up in 1994 she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis. By 2001, her hip hurt all the time. It dawned on her that she'd been compensating for the pain by never walking for more than ten minutes. "People started to notice I was limping, and I'd lost a lot of range of motion." She went for X rays. "They were awful--bone on bone, cysts and spurs--so that's when I started my research." Last December she signed up for surgery at Providence Hospital Northeast in Columbia, South Carolina; a doctor there was working with a new kind of implant.

Before the surgery, her primary emotion was fear. What she felt afterward took some sorting out. A piece of her was gone, and suddenly, in recovery, she was more dependent than she'd been since she was a child. She felt like a different person.

So she looked over sheet music, listened to CDs, and discovered connections between songs and surgery. "I've Got You Under My Skin" was fairly obvious, and another chestnut, "Getting to Know You," worked fine as a reference to time spent at her parents' house both before and after the hospital. Newer songs like "Temporary" and "You Remind Me" were mood pieces that described "coming to terms with the permanence of it." And she chose a medley of "You Do Something to Me," "The Way He Makes Me Feel," and "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" to sing as a tribute to her anesthesiologist. A couple of songwriter friends--Cheri Coons and Chuck Larkin--wrote the title tune.

After Davis premiered I'm (Artificially) Hip! at Davenport's in April, friend and fellow performer Steve Wallem, who was preparing to do a show about his battles with diabetes, tagged their genre "disease-of-the-week cabaret."

During her monthlong run, Davis's audience consisted mostly of friends from Internet chat groups such as "Surfacehippy" and "Totally Hip." At the time, she was only five months past her surgery and still feeling the effects. She couldn't cross her legs or bend over, and if she dropped something, too bad. "But it was much harder emotionally than physically," she says.

Unlike an elderly patient, who can expect an artificial hip to last till the bitter end, Davis will probably have to go through surgery again. "Hip replacements on people my age wear out fast, and you have to get another one. It's called a 'revision,' and each time they revise it they cut more bone off, and it's less successful. And the double whammy is the younger you are, the faster they wear out, because you're so active."

Though the show hasn't changed much since last April, Davis has--she can move a lot better and can go a whole day without thinking about her hip. Why put on the show again and revisit a time when she couldn't? "I wanted another chance to do it before it wasn't fresh to me anymore," she explains. "I have to do it while it still means something to me."

I'm (Artificially) Hip! opens at 8 PM Thursday, September 5, and runs every Thursday in September at Davenport's Piano Bar and Cabaret, 1383 N. Milwaukee (773-278-1830). There's a $15 cover and a two-drink minimum.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen Serio.

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