Dallas — Your Healing is Killing Me is the second of three performances that make up Cara Mía Theatre Company’s Latinidades, A Festival of Solo Shows. The first, Evolution of a Sonero, was a knock-out narrative of salsa and the Bronx mingling with the personal history of Falco Navaja from New York’s Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. The final piece of the series, entitled Ursula, or let yourself go with the wind, by Cara Mía ensemble member Frida Espinosa-Müller, runs for two weeks beginning next weekend.
In the middle is a queer Chicana poet, writer, theater artist’s self-proclaimed performance manifesto. Virginia Grise’s Your Healing is Killing Me is based on her personal experiences in San Antonio’s free health clinics and New York’s acupuncture schools. Originally from San Antonio, she subsequently lived in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York City. The Your Healing segment on constantly trying to find her way home or elsewhere through the maze of subway lines is both funny and frightening. She currently resides in Austin.
Suffering from an undiagnosed skin condition (which turns out to be eczema) the narrator/Grise, played by Florinda Bryant, begins there and stretches the imagination far beyond the flawed health care system — with or without health insurance — that treats symptoms but not causes.
What is killing me, she asks? Here are a few of her answers, from the published script:
Eczema is killing me.
Prescriptions that treat the symptoms and not the cause are killing me.
Healthcare that is actually not universal or free is killing me.
Processed food is killing me
Rising food costs is killing me
BPA, plastics, and toxic receipts is killing me.
White supremacy is killing me.
White liberals are killing me.
A two-part political system, where neither party represents my people, is killing me.
The lack of political imagination in this country is killing me.
Pan-Latino(ism) is killing me, as Latino is not a politic nor an ideology and it does nothing to prepare us to defend ourselves from what is actually killing us.
Clearly nothing and no one is spared from this fearless piece that calls out not only health, social and political issues, but also extremely personal ones.
The segment on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) starts off with the 10 characteristics of PTSD and stretches them to recognize not only that of her father, who did three tours of duty in Vietnam, but that of her Mexican mother who had to deal with living outside of her homeland with a husband who physically took out his PTSD on her body. Grise and her sisters lived with this condition, too. In a beautifully elliptical moment, we understand that an experience with an unnamed male adult left unnamed scars on her body and soul.
There is a poignant and true story of how Grise met the jazz musician Fred Ho in NYC, after hearing her read from her play blu. He wanted her to write about Russell Maroon Shoatz, a former member of the Black Panther movement. Shoats was convicted of murdering a police officer in Pennsylvania and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. On Feb. 20, 2014, Shoatz was returned to the prison's general population after being held in solitary confinement for more than 22 consecutive years. In solitary confinement. For 22 years. This segment questions “what is justice?”
Far from being just a talking head, the performance of the narrator by the talented Florinda Bryant moves her body through the living room-like space created on the Latino Cultural Center’s main stage. Designed by the gifted scenic designer Tara Houston (a faculty member at Louisiana State University), it creates an open and immersive space furnished with comfy sofas, tables, and chairs, all decorated as one might find in any home, with food, flowers, books, etc. Sound design by Manny Rivera introduces a subtle musical background that sometimes feels subliminal. Steven Piechocki keeps the lighting pretty steady on the open performance space, only changing the mood with solid colors on a large wall at the back of the stage. This smart choice adds to the immersive concept, as we share one big open living area without any one person — in this case the lead performer — being singled out and separated by a spotlight.
During the talk-back on opening night, Houston said the idea was to create shared living spaces from different moments of life, from various instances as we move from city to city and place to place. Under the direction of the Dallas-based Kendra Ware, Bryant moves among us, easily conversing with the audience, rather than “performing.”
This ease demonstrates the level of work, Ware says, that it takes to heal ourselves, to perform our craft, to perform who we are in society. There are no adornments on Bryant’s body, Ware says, because the creative team felt it important to stage it on its own terms: a woman of color whose physical form does not conform to popular physical standards. In this clearly defiant stance and through unabated honestly, Bryant wears black tights, a yellow tank top, tennis shoes and a pair of earrings. With closely cropped hair and tattoos, she does not seem “costumed” for the event. No camouflage.
“Immersive theater” is a phrase tossed about to signal audience participation within the spectacle itself, oftentimes sending apprehensive audience members into a tizzy over how much will be required of them.
In this instance, “immersive” is akin to being home listening to your best friend tell you a story, sometimes backed with music, but often sans a soundtrack. Bryant, as narrator Grise (who was in the house on Thursday), moved among us, making eye contact and sometimes motioning for an audience member to move their elbows from a sofa arm so that she can sit there.
This struck me as a particularly vulnerable move; often, actors appear to be making eye contact with audience members, but really, we all know they are staring at some spot in the distance. Not the case here. Bryant looked into my eyes; our eyes. For me, this was the most impressive aspect — to be looked at and acknowledged as a participatory listener in a communally shared event.
The sharing also took the form of shared food. There was home-cooked bone soup (plus a vegan option), as well as lemonade passed around in small ceramic bowls. No plastic. No disposable stuff. We partook with real food in real bowls.
The healing that emerges from this piece is that which comes from within, far beyond prescriptions and Band-aid temporary fixes.
Dealing with stress is one of those issues we all face. Grise incorporates Chairman Mao’s Four-Minute Physical Fitness Plan. Bryant begins the performance with a series of moves, which are also interspersed throughout the piece. The moves are illustrated in the published book, available in the lobby (they’re also included in the program).
“I always wanted to be a dancer,” the narrator says. And so, the piece ends with a simple choreographed bit with movements whereby the audience is invited to join. On Thursday, the space filled up quickly with volunteers (yours truly included).
Your Healing is Killing Me is a must-see for anyone hungry for a dose of community, in a safe space, with people who may or may not look like you, or maybe with whom you do not share a life experience. It does not matter. It is a must-see for lovers of the spoken word; for thinking people with open, critical minds and hearts. It is, fundamentally, a piece about our shared humanity, which these days seems to be a revolutionary act.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). She is often seen dancing tango.
» Read our interview with Grise here
The Latinidades festival continues with:
Aug. 29-Sept. 8
Ursula, or let yourself go with the wind
Written and Performed by Frida Espinosa-Müller
Composed and Performed by Armando Monsivais
Ursula tells the journey of Nadia, a 7 year-old, separated from her mother after seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border. As Nadia waits for her asylum to be processed, she reflects on the difficulties she is leaving behind in Honduras and the new reality she is facing. Live, original music from will take audiences into Nadia’s mind as she tries to make sense of all that is happening around her.
Ursula is a Cara Mía Theatre touring production in development.
Please note: Recommended for ages 10 and up. Performed primarily in Spanish with English supertitles.