Whenever I hear the word ‘healing’ I struggle with the heft of it. Trauma, healing, resilience, recovery are part of my lexicon, but often remain vague, unpacked ideas. I’m hungry to understand how people do it – the details and the actions.
Last month I was lucky enough to see two works of art that embody healing process.
Silenced took place at Red Sandcastle theater which is a living-room-sized, black-painted space with risers of chairs. When the women performed you could see their sweat and feel the reverberation of their feet on the floor.
My friend Jen produced the brilliant play, featuring six diverse women first writing and then sharing their personal stories onstage. And by personal I mean tender, true, funny, raw, and very visceral.
All of the women’s stories in the play were powerful, but Yolanda Bonnell’s story resonated with me the most. In her own words: “Ultimately [my story is] about my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the physical and mental abuse inflicted upon myself and my family from my stepfather for over twelve years of our lives.”
Bonnell moved through her narrative with wit and force, recalling those years. Stark moments came when she physically enacted the abuse: jutting forward after being kicked in the back, crouching down to avoid a beating. It was a fierce dance of recollection, with the audience witnessing how violence was imprinted on her body.
Another visceral scene came near the end. Yolanda stood in the spotlight, under low white light, with both hands reaching to her guts. She mimed pulling out strands of poison – removing his poison from her body – and spoke of the long process of realizing she no longer has to be afraid.
She later explained the healing in her performance: “Knowing that domestic abuse is so very common and a lot of us grow up in those environments, it was important to me, especially as a coloured woman, as an Indigenous woman, that other women could connect with my experience. Healing is something I’ve been trying to do, I feel for a long time for many different issues. This story, is really just a piece of a larger puzzle of traumas and histories I need to heal from. I write because it allows me to express or put these things out there so I’m not holding them inside of me. You have to let the poison out before you can even attempt to heal. Expression on stage not only allows myself to heal but for others out there who might not recognize their own poison until they see someone else’s.” (Full q & a).
A week after Silenced, I saw another play that continued this thread of healing and expression through theatre.
Black Boys was staged at Buddies in Bad Times, and I went to the sold-out closing night. The play featured three queer black men, who wrote and performed their own stories on a minimalist set.
It’s hard to put the non-linear masterpiece of this play into words. The men shared their lives through dance, light projections, spoken word, current news, and meta references to earlier rehearsals. The play built visual metaphors and used powerful moments to reveal differing histories: a mixed-race sparkly young foster kid, a Canadian-born ‘straight-looking’ gay man, and a Ghanian-born man who claimed God as an occasional lover. All three pulled apart identities into rich, complex threads of narrative.
One piece of choreography has stayed with me. Early in the play, in a long, lone streak of light, the Canadian man, Thomas Olajide, danced out what felt like rage against an oppressive system. Moving ferociously up and down within this thin line of grimy light, Olajide clutched, kicked, revolted against the air, slamming his body up against the invisible wall between him and the audience again and again until collapse.
Much later in the play, Olajide returned to that moment of choreography. This time, he came from back stage, his body gleaming in low warm light, and performed tongue-in-cheek vaudeville about the objectification of his ‘beautiful black frame’. The scene grew in force until he quieted and paused mid-stage, with the lights framing his body.
He began to leap towards the audience, kicking out into the still air. This time from a very different place: my Nigerian ancestors taught me to never give up my power. Over and over, fiercely repeating this phrase, Olajide reframed the earlier dance into a forceful ritual of reclamation, his movements building in strength and speed. He ended the dance with a muscular leap forward, arms outspread, head back and throat bared. Lights down.
Later, with the house lights up, in a Q & A with the audience, someone asked the actors what was healing for them about their performance.
Olajide answered first, sharing that it is profound (and so rare) to have all black bodies onstage, in a play written by and featuring black men’s stories. He then reminisced about being in a convenience store with a white friend a short while ago. Olajide’s internal clock of ‘I should leave now’ went off, and as he went to go, his white friend asked why. In that moment, Olajide realized how much he’d internalized a racialized sense of pace, keeping his body small in public places, afraid of being targeted for his blackness.
He explained how, in direct response, taking up space onstage is a revolutionary act. Especially, he reflected, in that incredible moment of the play where he could leap forward and hold his arms out wide, open, unprotected.
As an audience member, I watched and felt in my body these movements on stage. Very different stories and realities from my own, but stirring, resonant. Through witnessing the pain of others and allowing it to sing to our own pain, art becomes healing act.