Dallas — Cara Mía Theatre Company has just opened its 2019-20 season, titled “The Many Faces of Cara Mía Theatre.” One of the first “faces” is exploring new subjects for the company by presenting Latinidades: A Festival of Solo Shows. The festival, which opened last weekend with El Flaco Navaja’s Evolution of a Sonero, explores the diversity of contemporary Latinx people in the U.S., and features Afro, indigenous, queer, body-positive and female-centered narratives. Next up in the festival is Your Healing is Killing Me at the Latino Cultural Center in Dallas. Written by Virginia Grise, performed by Florinda Bryant, and directed by Kendra Ware, the show runs Aug. 22-25. The festival continues Aug. 29 through Sept. 8 with Ursula, a border story through the eyes of a child, written and performed by Frida Espinosa Müller.
Your Healing is Killing Me is a performance manifesto based on Grise’s lessons learned in San Antonio free health clinics and New York acupuncture schools; from the treatments and consejos of curanderas, abortion doctors, Marxist artists, community health workers, and bourgie dermatologists. Capitalism is toxic but The Revolution is not in your body butter.
TheaterJones met with Virginia Grise, award-winning theatermaker at a local Dallas breakfast dive to talk about her journey and about the upcoming manifesto performance at the Latino Cultural Center. She had been running around Dallas in meetings, interviews and rehearsals. (You can also read our chat with Grise from 2018, as she had adapted Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which was given a staged reading at WaterTower Theatre’s Detour Festival.)
TheaterJones: Thank you so much for meeting with me. I understand you are from San Antonio, but do you still live there?
Virginia Grise: I live in Austin now but I grew up San Antonio; I moved there when I was three and lived there until I went to college at University of Texas at Austin. I later taught middle school there before I left to get my MFA at the California Institute of the Arts.
Have you lived anywhere outside of Texas?
I have lived in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York.
How did that experience help you develop your work on stage?
The first show I did at Cara Mía was The Panza Monologues as a solo show. It was my first professional touring show that I created, together with Irma Mayorga. After that I feel I had really reached a point in my trajectory as an artist where I needed more training and there weren't many other places I could continue to develop and grow as an artist. I had no intention of getting an MFA, but I had reached the point where I knew that in order to be the type of artists that I wanted to be, I needed more training and really there weren’t very many places for me to train as an artist.
I chose Cal Arts, in part, they had a writing for performance program. It wasn't just a playwriting program. They really challenged you to think imaginatively about what could be on the stage. There were no limits, there were no boxes. They wanted you to bust open the box and to think about performance more expansively. And so that really shaped me as an artist. I was introduced to experimental artists there and experimental artists of color.
After graduating, it was important to me that I become a working artist. I set myself to work. Everything that I owned fit in my car and my first couple of years out of graduate school, I'd said yes to everything because I felt like it was an opportunity just to learn. And in doing that, I got to do things that I never imagined myself doing. I directed a site-specific show at the Alamo with over a hundred performers. I wrote for a dance company in Los Angeles, an adaptation of [Virginia Woolf’s] Orlando. And that made me a more rounded theatre artist.
Eventually I moved to New York, which was a completely different experience. I think New York was one of the first times I ever lived in a city that wasn't a Mexican majority city or neighborhood but the barrio is still the barrio. I learned a whole lot living in Brooklyn and in the Bronx. And then I believe that there came a moment when I started to close in on what I wanted to do, which I feel is the moment that I'm at in my career right now. It is the work that I really want to do, based on all these experiences that I've had. I lived and worked in New York City for seven years and just recently moved back home to Texas.
You touched a little on your journey, and I've read about your different experiences. You are a playwright, you have been an academic, you are an artist, you are an activist. What do you consider yourself?
I'm an artist, I recently stopped using “playwright” to be quite honest, because what I am doing is making theater. Sometimes I do that as a writer. Sometimes I do that as a director. Sometimes I do that as a performer. And most recently, sometimes I do that as a producer. But what I'm doing is making theater. I would identify myself as a theater artist.
What inspired Your Healing is Killing Me?
I was invited to a program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities at University of California/Riverside, a collaboration between humanities scholars and doctors, physicians. What can doctors learn from humanities scholars really was the focus. I wanted to present new work and I had an idea but I didn’t have a show yet. So, I presented a performance lecture that was part writing workshop, part lecture, part performance. And I started it by asking folks to talk about what was killing them and I made a list of everything that was killing me. Those stories eventually became a show that was dramaturged and developed with Emily Mendelsohn and that show became a book, published by Plays Inverse Press. At Cara Mia, together with Kendra Ware and Florinda Bryant we are working on the touring version of the show.
Thee performance is organized in a series of eight exercises based on Mao’s Four-Minute Physical Fitness Program. When I taught high school in East Los Angeles, one of the things that I had all of my students learn was Mao’s Four-Minutes. I cannot remember who taught it to me and I cannot remember where I learned it but I know that what Mao’s physical fitness plan does is it teaches people how to breathe together, how to stay committed to a movement. It teaches discipline, it teaches integrity of gesture, it teaches collective action. And, I used it because high school students are so awkward in their bodies and theatre is an art form about the body. I wanted something that brought us together as an ensemble. And so, every single writing session began with Mao's Four-Minute Physical Fitness.
I really think of Your Healing is Killing Me as a meditation on political and artistic practice. I wrote it at a moment in which I think I was at a cross roads in my life as an artist, where a lot of doors were opening up for me in terms of my career, but I really needed to ask the question what my work actually was, what it needed. And I feel like what it needed was different than what the traditional career trajectory is for most artists.
What you want the audiences to leave with?
One of the things that we've talked about with this piece is that we are really interested in what it means to actually create something with the community. What we have been given the great privilege to do here at Cara Mia is to work out ideas in the body and development with an audience. And so, this is actually a piece in development. And so, we're gesturing towards a theater in which we all create something together. And I think that that's the feel that I want the audience to take away. What is it that we're building? What is it we're making when we make theater?
Do you think theater, and in particular Latinx theater, should be an agent for social change or social justice?
I feel like I can speak only to my work. I was raised by a father who taught me that it was everybody's responsibility to think critically and politically about the world. And so that was true if you were an artist, if you were a custodian, if you were a mechanic, if you were a housewife — that is our job. I don't know how to negotiate the world, walk in the world, be in the world, without thinking about it critically and politically. Aesthetic choices are also political choices. I feel like everything that I do comes from that lens. That's just the way that I was raised to be honest. The same would be true if I was a schoolteacher, which is what I did before I became an artist.
Does your writing reflect your life's journey, and has it changed through the years?
Well, this particular piece is my own story. And I think that it is a document of my journey as an artist, how I became artists and what I feel my responsibility is as an artist. It is a document of that.
What message would you send to your younger self? Are you on the journey that you set for yourself?
I have always learned by fighting. If I could send a message to my younger self, it is that I actually have everything I need to do what I want to do; that I need to trust my collaborators, that I bring myself forward in a room and to recognize the power that I have, the power of my stories, and the power of a community that supports me and my work. I grew up in a very critical family. If you came home with an A, they wanted to know why it wasn't an A+. I think I always focus on what the problem is or what the challenges are first, because I want to know how we get to the next moment. I think that something I am challenged with right now and something I would give as advice is to really be in the present moment and to be, to really be grateful for this life that I've been given. I do not have the same struggles that my mother had or that my father had. I am very fortunate to be able to choose, to really create my own worlds, my own career, my own way of working. I'm very fortunate to be able to do that.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming or aspiring artists or playwrights?
To work, to work… People are so concerned about how they get into this institution, into this theater, to this door… How do we break this open? How do I get included? People need to write. People need to put performances up, people need to just make work. Theater happens in the doing. It is through gathering the people, because it takes an army to make a theater piece, and learning how to collaborate with others, that you learn how to become a theatre artist.
Do you have a favorite piece of work or a favorite project?
My favorite work is always what I'm working on right now. My favorite project right now is Your Healing is Killing Me. I love what I'm learning about myself as an artist through the process of making this work. I have learned that I have fierce and imaginative collaborators that are not ascribing to any fixed notions of what theater has to be. I feel like I have a team that I love, that I want to spend time with, that I care about. And I love the ideas being generated right now about how to move this work forward. As an artist, I am learning and that place of learning is exciting for me — to see what the possibilities of this work are and I feel like that's happening right now. This is the piece that I'm most excited about right now.
When I think about other theatrical works that have inspired me, I think of the work of Sharon Bridgforth, Migdalia Cruz, Cherríe Moraga, Adrienne Kennedy and Reza Abdoh: Those artists that break me open and force me to think about the world in new ways and show me things that are both scary and beautiful at the same time where I am forced to face my own fears and prejudices and really actually grow. I want to be the type of artist that can create work that truly does transform people in the way in which I've been transformed by other people's works.
As soon as this is done, I go to Tucson, Arizona, to work on an adaptation of Their Dogs Came with Them by Helena Maria Viramontes. I adapted her novel for the stage. I'm so grateful to be doing a piece of work where I get to honor a veteran of Chicana literature whose books changed my life. And now I get to work in the world of her words. I want to be that type of artist. I strive to be an artist that walks in the world with artistic integrity and rigor.
What do you think is most important thing that people should know about you?
It’s not about me but my team. I just want to acknowledge that we have an an incredible team working on this show. Kendra Ware is directing; Florinda Bryant is performing; Tara Houston is doing set design; Manny Rivera is doing sound design and Maricella Infante has is making the meal that we will eat together, amongst other things. Coupled with the team that Cara Mia has assembled – this really is a dream team.
You will be at the community conversation about healthcare and healing called “This is not a revolution, but I wish it was!” this Saturday at the Latino Cultural Center. Will you be presenting yourself as an artist?
Yes, I will be offering my perspective as an artist. I think that the way I think about health is important to the show. Health is not just about when we get sick and we have to go see the doctor but about what it means to have a healthy community. That's a driving question in the show. That means that the show tackles medical issues such as access to healthcare and abortion, but it also speaks to questions of literacy, prison rebellion, freedom, abolition. All of those things to me is what community health is about.