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Moving Theatre Toward Collective Self-Defense: Virginia Grise’s Your Healing is Killing Me

“This is not a play,” pronounces actor Florinda Bryant in the opening lines of Cara Mía Theatre’s production of Virginia Grise’s performance Your Healing is Killing Me (23 September-10 October 2021), directed by Kendra Ware in association with a todo dar productions. I am in the audience seated on a folded chair at a small table among a dozen partitioned tables at the Latino Cultural Center’s new, multiform black box theatre in Dallas, Texas. The booth-like seating, dim lighting, and small audience capacity evokes the feeling we are at an intimate grassroots coffee shop—perhaps New York City, where Ware situates the performance. With the exception of Bryant, we are wearing masks. The seating design, even as it is intentionally socially distanced, allows for intimacy: We are in the Delta variant surge of the many surges that have pressed on during this global pandemic which have—along with other racialized, economic, and health crises—disproportionally impacted Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

Grise wrote Your Healing is Killing Me long before the COVID-19 global pandemic. The performance offers Grise’s autobioethnography of seeking care and healing from debilitating eczema and an auto-immune disorder in health care systems not invested in BIPOC health. Across eight sections, Bryant manifests through movement Grise’s narrative of the intersectional and structural (race, economics, gender, and sexuality) traumas and histories that shape BIPOC communities’ access to health care. While watching the performance, it is difficult not to situate these inequities, and the need for collective self-care, amidst our current COVID-19 pandemic and the disproportionate impacts on people of color.

Your Healing is Killing Me is a movement manifesto grounded in grassroots health activism by and for BIPOC. In the piece’s opening moments, Bryant—donning a shimmery red blouse, blue hair underneath a yellow headband, geometric-patterned colorful pants, and maroon boots throughout the show—stands tall and states: “This is a Manifesto. Towards A Politic of Collective Self-Defense. Instead of Individualized Self-Care.” To activate the performance’s collective self-defense, Bryant performs the eight movements from Chairman Mao’s 4 Minute Physical Fitness Plan—walk, reach, punch, present the bow, kick the door, side stretch, toe touch, to the heavens, jumping jacks, and run—as a way to introduce them. She then performs each of the movements in their entirety across the piece’s eight sections. These collective self-defense movements contrast with the actor itching her elbows, knees, and legs throughout the performance. The actor’s itching embodies many traumas that Bryant names throughout the show: sexual violence, the violence of capitalism, racial violence, and the layered impact of these traumas on BIPOC.

One actor stands on stage under a spotlight.

Photos from Your Healing is Killing Me by Virginia Grise. Photos by Ben Torres.

In the opening moments of the performance, we hear Bryant’s footsteps as she walks onto the stage accompanied by her deep exhales. As Bryant performs the Chairman Mao exercises, her body and breathe creates a soundtrack of movement. As Bryant marches, we hear an archival recording by the Central China Philharmonic Society Orchestra from a 1973 vinyl recording by Celestial Arts (sound design by Manny Rivera). The recording was created during China’s modernization period in the 1970s and 1980s for those who performed the Chairman Mao exercises. The upbeat and nationalistic music parallels the original intent of the movements designed to unify and cultivate the physical fitness of Chinese male citizens in service of the state. As we hear the orchestra’s dramatic horns and tymphony crescendo, we see Bryant perform the Chairman Mao exercises in front of projected digital archival footage of the Chinese military performing them.

Unlike the original intent of Mao’s exercises, which was in service to masculinity and nationalism, Grise’s Your Healing is Killing Me uses the movements for grassroots activism by queer BIPOC in response to the violence of the state and health care industries. The performance’s emphasis on collective resistance contrasts with individualized narratives of self-care voiced later in the show when Bryant performs the voice of a white liberal professor who encourages her BIPOC students to just “breathe” and perform other rituals of self-care, such as baths, massages, fairy houses, and nature walks.

Your Healing is Killing Me’s eight sections invoke the genres of the testimonio and autobioethnograpy to amplify the individual psychic traumas manifested in queer BIPOC bodies, all of which build toward the collective self-defense incited by the piece’s closing. In “Exercise 1: Reaching,” Bryant sits on a couch in a New York City apartment scratching her body (knees first, then legs, and then elbows), a reference to the eczema we learn later is a manifestation of imbalances in her body. As Bryant scratches her knees, she tells audiences that she is a working and struggling artist in New York City, “one of the most expensive cities in the nation.” As she continues to scratch her body, Bryant continues, saying that in New York, “a can of coffee costs $6.14, a dozen eggs, $2.89; In the winter, avocados are $2.79…each.”

One actor stands on stage under a spotlight.

In “Exercise 2: Punching,” Bryant shares memories growing up during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. As Bryant punches out with each fist and repeats the movements, she links the current inequities in United States health care and the neglect of BIPOC to policies from this period. In “Exercise 3, Present the Bow,” Bryant recounts her mother’s and grandmother’s curanderismo healing traditions, as well as her father’s Chinese background—cultural traditions that counter health care systems that have neglected BIPOC health. As Bryant raises her arms toward the sky and looks up, she remarks: “Being Mexican was magic.” Bryant, while turning in a circle and opening her arms out in a bow and arrow gesture, names the family cultural traditions that have healed her: “Rose petal limpias; marijuana leaves; agua pura; brown Chinese alcohol in a pickle jar… rising smoke; melting rock.”

In the rest of the third excerise and in “Exercise 4: Kick the Door,” Bryant’s body and voice names the multigenerational traumas that she and her family have endured. As Bryant alludes to the sexual abuse that she experienced at a young age, we hear dramatic piano keys while Bryant’s arms tremble as she lifts them out like wings: “At age five, I had already learned fear, had already learned to be scared, scared of men, scared of the men on the streets in my neighborhood.” Bryant, releasing her head and arms while sitting back into her hips, then says: “At age five, I…I…I…,” followed by a deep exhale. Bryant’s choice to not complete the sentence names the sexual abuses. As Bryant recites the “Ten Characteristics of PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder],” she kicks out each leg, raises her arms, touches her toes, rolls her shoulders back, shakes her arms, and exhales, while the text of each characteristic appears as a digital projection behind her. When she shares that her father, mother, sister, and herself all suffer from PTSD, Bryant’s voice crescendos.

As “Exercise 4” continues, Bryan names the sexual vulnerabilities that queer women of color experience in the health care industry. While walking frantically in circles across the room, she looks up toward the sky and sighs. Here, Bryant recounts the time she got lost in New York City: “Because No Space Is Safe,” which is “a concept [she] learned at a very young age.” The phrase, “It sucks being a woman, huh,” punctuates this section. As Bryant scratches her elbows and arms, she relays the moment she discovered she was pregnant on a visit to the doctor. Then, while looking directly at audience members, Bryant emphasizes a woman’s right to have an abortion: “The silence, not the abortions, created a great deal of trauma.”

Given Texas’s current abortion laws and hostility to women’s rights to choose, I hear Bryant’s next pronouncement, “I have never wanted to be a mother” as a powerful challenge to the state’s violence against women. Bryant then closes the section by listing “Four Things Cis Men Will Never Have to Do” while raising her arms and counting on her fingers: “One, Menstruate; Two, get pregnant; Three, give birth; four, have an abortion.” While directly looking at audience members, Bryant then says, “Yeah, sometimes it sucks being a woman.”

In “Exercise 5: Side Stretch,” the audience discovers for the first time that Bryant has eczema. Bryant scatches her arms as she proclaims, “On face value this doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? But my eczema is extreme. Allergies, rashes, hives, itchiness, dryness around my mouth and eyes, cracked and bleeding skin.” Bryant then explains how she tried many remedies from both a black market doctor in San Antonio, Julio in New York City, and a fancy dermatologist (each who prescribed them the same creams and ointments); yet that these treatments only managed the symptoms and not the cause. She even tried the master cleanse, but this disrupted her gut microbiome, resulting in intolerances and allergies to the foods and spices common in both Chinese and Mexican food. Pointing out the irony, Bryant says: “I am the daughter of a Chinese Mexican immigrant.”

Here, Bryant amplifies how the United States health care industry works to sever BIPOC from their cultural identities. When Bryant recites a recipe for bone soup later toward the end of the performance, we learn that she found relief from her eczema, not from health care systems hostile to BIPOC health, but by adjusting her diet to cultivate healthy gut bacteria, where “healthy skin begins in the panza, the gut.”

One actor stands on stage under a spotlight.

In “Exercise 5: Side Stretch,” Bryant gives voice to all the structural factors that are killing BIPOC. As the lights dim, we hear sounds from a dizi, a traditional Chinese flute. As Bryant walks across the room, she looks directly at audience members while listing out the violences against BIPOC. Bryant’s voice gets animated and louder as she recites: “Eczema creams are killing me…. Health care that is not actually universal or free is killing me… Monsanto [a United State agrochemical corporation] is killing me.… Rising rents are killing me….White supremacy is killing me.… White liberals are killing me.” Bryant then lets out a deep exhale. As an audience member, I exhale too, and I feel the collective rage.

The collective rage that the performance has built thus far contrasts with the individual, neoliberal sounds Bryant expresses in “Exercise 6: Toe Touch,” in which Bryant recounts the structural racism and traumas inflicted on BIPOC students at universities and colleges. Bryant remarks how universities respond to racial and sexual violence on campuses with tone-deaf, public relations strategies, (i.e., the “self-care brown bag luncheons”) that do not address structural racisms embedded in university institutions. Bryant critiques the neoliberal university by quoting Black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” followed by her own commentary, “The university is still not safe.… No space is safe.” These lines amplify how universities—in similar ways to the United States health care industry—will perpetuate violences against BIPOC as long as these institutions’ programming and curriculum are wedded to white supremacy.

As we hear the low and dark notes of a cello play, the lights dim. Bryant then names Audre Lorde and many other well-known BIPOC writers who have died due to structural systems that continue to harm BIPOC. As Bryant states one name after another of BIPOC women who have passed away, she looks up and raises her arms above her shoulders as if reaching and then lowers her arms. She repeats this movement over and over: “June Jordan.” Reaching. Exhale. “Sylvia Rivera.” Reaching. Exhale. “Michele Serros.” Reaching. Exhale. “Octavia Butler.” Reaching Exhale. “Gloria Anzaldúa.” Reaching. Exhale. Bryant then closes her eyes and clenches her fists, stating the thesis of the performance’s entire manifesto: “No space is safe. If we operate from the understanding that no space is safe we can begin developing the tools to defend ourselves from what puts us at harm.”

In “Exercise 7: To the Heavens,” we hear the sounds of the dizi once again as Bryant repeatedly closes her eyes, raises her arms to the sky, looks up, and folds forward. Here, she recites “Lessons from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War,” an essay attributed to Chinese military general Sun Tzu about how to outsmart your enemy. In Your Healing is Killing Me, Bryant has already named these enemies: white supremacist institutions and systemic inequities that are killing BIPOC. In the closing section of the performance, “Exercise 8: Jumping Jacks,” Bryant recounts Asian American political activist Fred Ho’s question to the artist. Bryant, performing in Ho’s serious, confronting voice, asks the question: “Are you a Revolutionary? It is the only question that matters.” As an audience member, I hear this question as a challenge to us all to respond and act to what we have witnessed together.

One actor stands on stage under a spotlight.

Bryant’s movements in the closing moments of the performance invite audiences to move and fight collectively together. She attaches a red metallic cylinder with cut-out sketches of drawings of Grise performing the Chairman Mao Movements on a metal chain that lowers from the ceiling. As it glows, Bryant spins the cylinder and it spreads brilliant light across the audience. Here, Bryant proclaims: “An entire industry has been created around the idea of self-care without naming what is actually putting us at harm…. The only way to destroy it is to create something better. In the process, we must be willing to access, to prepare, to study, to fight, but we must also be willing to listen to ourselves and each other, to change, to transform, to care for ourselves and each other.” Bryant then invites audience members to breathe collectively as she counts to three and then solicits audience volunteers to join her in a line dance (created in consultation with dance choreographer Michelle Gibson) that turns the Mao Exercise Plan into a dance sequence. As Bryant teaches the choreography to the three eager, masked audience volunteers, they express joy and smile while learning the movements, manifesting collective joy.

Your Healing is Killing Me evokes movement in all its meanings: moving bodies and breathe, movements for social justice, and moving theatre toward collective self-defense. As an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and HowlRound Theatre Commons playwright in residence for the Cara Mía Theatre production, Grise continues to activate her performance manifesto through her work with cultural promotoras, or community health workers, in Dallas neighborhoods. During the Cara Mía production, Grise worked with three Dallas neighborhoods (Oak Cliff, Bachman Lake, and Pleasant Grove) in a series of workshops that used community toolboxes to identify specific structural violences and health inequities impacting their communities, asking community members to list everything that is “trying to kill us and our people.” With the toolboxes, community members were valued as experts in contrast to the health care system that devalues BIPOC knowledge and healing practices.

During March and April 2022, Grise launched Da Grove: Un Taller for Dreaming, a performance lab designed to facilitate curated gatherings and art-making with community members to fight state violence with collective moment, joy, and celebration. The power of Your Healing is Killing Me is not only what happened during the performance but the work that happened before, during, and what continues after the production. I invite everyone to learn and practice the line dance choreography, as I did while working on this review, to find joy and care in our continued, collective fight against structural violences harming BIPOC.

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