Melanie Crean, Shaun Leonardo, and Sable Elyse Smith, Mirror/Echo/Tilt, 2019. Digital photograph, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artists
This panel discussion will consider strategies for envisioning new narratives toward healing and justice, and will feature sci-fi writer and artist Ras Cutlass Mashramani; Bryan Doerries, artistic director of Theater of War; and psychologist Isaiah Pickens.
This panel is organized on the occasion of “Mirror/Echo/Tilt,” an exhibition and residency by artists Melanie Crean, Shaun Leonardo, and Sable Elyse Smith that represents the culmination of a four-year project to counter narratives of criminality through performance and pedagogy. Employing a visual storytelling curriculum, the artists led workshops in which participants translated their experiences with the carceral state into narratives using language and gesture. The process aims to facilitate participants’ self-understanding as agents of their own stories, so that “the mind and body may think, feel, and move in a way not defined by their previous experiences,” as the artists write in their curriculum.
Reconfiguring classic structures of heroic tales and using techniques such as externalizing language into embodied forms drawn from Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, the project considers how the body processes memories and trauma in order to imagine new possibilities. The artists interviewed scholars and practitioners across many fields—including psychology, visionary fiction, and community-based theater —to develop the project, and this panel continues these interdisciplinary dialogues.
Ras Cutlass Mashramani is a Philadelphia-based sci-fi writer, narrative artist, and cofounder of the grassroots sci-fi collective Metropolarity. Her artistic work concerns the experiences of people who are subject to institutionalization and dehumanization because of mental wellness challenges, being of color, or possessing another marginalized identity that proves dangerous to the status quo. Much of her artistic practice also involves engaging, nurturing, and organizing local artists, writers, youth, and other neighbors through workshops, readings, and other collective events. A social worker with over ten years of frontline mental health experience, she currently organizes young people to take the lead in local housing justice and community healing work. Cutlass’s speculative writing and artistic practices are heavily grounded in experiences from frontline mental health and social work, personal and ancestral experiences of institutionalization and confinement, critical perspectives on “insanity” and the mental health field, and communitarian, collective processes of imagining futures where marginalized people can access power, wellness, and joy.
Bryan Doerries is a Brooklyn-based writer, director, and translator who currently serves as artistic director of Theater of War Productions. Doerries employs age-old approaches to help individuals and communities heal from trauma and loss. Theater of War uses dramatic readings of seminal plays and community conversations to confront topics such as combat-related psychological injury, end-of-life care, police and community relations, prison reform, gun violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, the refugee crisis, and addiction. During his tenure with the company, the company has presented diverse projects across the United States and internationally. Doerries is the author of The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan (2016), The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (2015), and All That You’ve Seen Here Is God (2015), a collection of his translations of ancient Greek Tragedies. In 2017, he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Kenyon College and was named Public Artist in Residence for the City of New York.
Isaiah Pickens, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in consulting, counseling, and educational services for individuals and organizations. Pickens is assistant director of the Service Systems Program at the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. He is the founder of iOpening Enterprises, a mental health and wellness education company that specializes in health messaging through innovative media and interactive, evidence-informed workshops. In this capacity, he developed the Bridge Trauma-Informed Culturally-Responsive Program, a multiday professional development for educators that provides a practical toolkit for managing youth traumatic stress responses in schools. Pickens is currently a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Leader. He received the American Psychological Association Achievement Award for Early Career Psychologists (2014) and the Black Enterprise BE Modern Man award (2016).
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