It’s not that dancing on the stage of the Latino Cultural Center in Dallas the evening I arrived in the city wasn’t in the range of possibilities. Over the years, my friend Juan has introduced me to a lot of things I hadn’t previously considered. Like the time we put together a talent show in West Dallas as part of a teen pregnancy prevention program that consisted of 34 rap acts and one lambada. But dancing on a stage is not usually a spontaneous opportunity for a pastor on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. We have to prepare for such a thing.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the rural life. And, just as in the naked city, there are eight million stories in the countryside. We are far more diverse than we give ourselves credit for. But getting one of those stories heard can be difficult.
On this particular night, Juan had taken me to an experimental production of the one-woman monologue Your Healing is Killing Me by Virginia Grise. Florinda Bryant was the actress who delivered the piece, which Grise has also described as a performance lecture and, (her preferred term), a manifesto.
Bryant was dressed simply in a yellow tank top and black tights, moving throughout the space, which was set up like a living room with couches and stools and tables on which were placed books and cutting boards with elements of the bone soup we ended up sharing at the end of the performance. She sat down on the arms of the sofas to talk familiarly. She interspersed her movement with exercises from Chairman Mao’s physical routine. And she danced.
There was anger in this manifesto, particularly as it addressed Virginia Grise’s struggles with the American health care system and with all the systems that work against those who live on the margins. For Grise, it meant struggling with the ways that even her body turned against her. Midway through she hits the litany that fires the show:
“Eczema creams are killing me. Prescriptions that address the symptoms but not the cause are killing me. Health care that is not actually universal or free is killing me. Processed food is killing me. Oranges, carrots, and chile are killing me. Monsanto is killing me. Rising rents are killing me. Not being paid on time and checks that arrive late in the mail are killing me. Reimbursement paperwork is killing me. BPA, plastics, and toxic receipts are killing me. White supremacy is killing me. White liberals are killing me. A two-party political system, where neither party represent my people, is killing me.” (56-7)
The list goes on.
Grise struggles with family, too, who don’t understand her “lifestyle choice.” She is a lesbian, but that’s not what her father doesn’t get. “What he disapproves of is me being an artist. He can’t even say the word.” (23)
Grise doesn’t get it herself. For her, the life of an artist is hard for her to claim and hard to love. Throughout the work she keeps getting asked about it:
“Do you like your job?
Yes, I have to admit.
Remember that the next time you sit down to write….I felt like I was going crazy, trying to navigate a system without any tools for self-defense because I was trying so damn hard just to live in gratitude, for this work that I do like, for this life.” (75)
As the dance ended and we started to filter out of the theater, I felt the release of the performance. It ended, not with the anger, but with the possibility that art unlocks. What Grise wants to take on is impossible in one sense. There is so much that is killing her. The health care system. The food supply. Ultimately:
“Capitalism is toxic. No amount of body butter or eczema creams will act as a salve for its toxicity. As a system it cannot be be fixed. The only way to defend ourselves against it is to destroy it. The only way to destroy it is to create something better.” (83)
Sounds like the recipe for a hopeless revolutionary searching for instruments to take down an overwhelming foe. Except that she has the tool she needs.
“I am an artist. And as an artist, I believe that my greatest creative project is to imagine something, something better, where our dreams matter, where as a people we are free.” (83)
We were free for a few minutes on that stage. Perhaps for an hour even. We, the queer Chicanas and the cisgender Anglos. The pierced and the scarred. The ones that the sinful systems of this world distort in so many ways. The ones who are killed, even by what claims to heal. We danced an imperfect freedom and imagined something better, something more.