Healing Through Gratitude

Writing and performing with The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women/HIV Circle, Lisa Frias utilizes the medium of Dance and Theatre to teach the healing power of gratitude.

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Lisa is the director of the Dance Department at Thomas R. Pollicita Middle School in Daly City, California. For more than 20 years, she has performed as a core member of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women/HIV Circle. In 2019, she graduated from California Institute of Integral Studies, receiving her Master’s of Fine Arts. Her stage production, Gratitude, will run at Stagewerx in San Francisco from January 28 to 31, 2021.

At some point, it becomes impossible to separate life themes from art, which, of course, with all that is happening in the world, makes perfect sense. As the Black Lives Matter movement courageously changes history, the clarion call to pay attention, unpack privilege and allyship and walk the walk of anti-racist work blasts with deafening clarity. And in the throes of COVID, we are challenged to investigate the very core of our personal narratives. As we attempt to adjust to an ever-changing pandemic reality, it is impossible to reflect on or conceive of art-making without recognizing these profound contexts.

Since earning my MFA, my work includes revising my one-woman show, Gratitude, performing as a core member of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women/HIV Circle, and teaching Middle School Dance full time.

Gratitude, in its first incarnation, constituted my MFA Thesis. A few months before that first performance, my dad died, and since then my mom has died too. So now I approach the work with the strange and rudderless sense of being parentless — mindful, of course, that mourning parents who live into old age are a blessing that many are not afforded.

During my show, one of the characters says, “Gratitude is the antidote to all of life’s poisons,” and I wonder — is it? Gratitude certainly doesn’t nullify or rectify inequity and abuse. Still, I am certain that gratitude is a grounding force, one that makes me more capable of moving correctly through the world with justice and love. That same character later says, “All the revolutionary people in history, they had equal parts rage and gratitude.”

If you’re not rageful, you’re not paying attention; if you’re not grateful, you’re not paying it forward. So, as I rework this piece, I find I am looking at the concept of gratitude from both familiar and new angles. If others are denied things that I get to be grateful for, what is incumbent upon me to do? What is the role of trauma and loss in shaping my own gratitude? Where do gratitude and healing dance?

Gratitude will go up at Stagewerx in San Francisco on January 28, 30, 31, 2021, directed by the legendary Rhodessa Jones. I met Rhodessa Jones, the director of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women /HIV Circle when I started performing with the company in 1995. Through the years, the company’s work has always centered its stories on women as radical life-saving vehicles to both personal healing and social justice.

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During my last semester at California Institute for Integral Studies, I performed in a Medea Project collaboration with Planned Parenthood called Birthright. Since then we have done numerous other performances and gone on tour. When Did Your Hands Become A Weapon was staged at Brava Theater and explored the many manifestations of violence against women.

The methodology of Rhodessa Jones and The Medea Project is more compelling than ever. She has always said, “You don’t get people to tell their stories; you tell your own.” The visceral sharing that is the cornerstone of Medea opens doors to all kinds of healing and revolution. Twenty-five years later, we are still sitting in a circle, nodding our heads, speaking, crying, laughing, and listening.

Since graduating, I have continued to direct the Thomas R. Pollicita Middle School Dance Department in Daly City. At-Home Learning during COVID has presented numerous challenges and demanded a lot of sharp learning curves with ZOOM and other technologies. What’s salient for me, though, is an even deeper appreciation of what I don’t know — specifically the unique challenges that my students have to face. A recurring theme during my time at CIIS was the importance of inquiry. Since graduating, I developed a Mindfulness program as part of my Dance curriculum at my school. I was unsure if it would fly, but the students let me know that not only was it helpful, but they wanted more of it, and they wanted it regularly. The profound resilience of youth, coupled with educators’ blind spots and systemic obstacles, sometimes means, as teachers, we don’t see the weight of the stressors they’re carrying. Often approaches to address students’ needs and trauma are very high stakes; mindfulness (and Dance) are resources for inquiry that don’t center the students as academic failures or victims but rather give them safe space to rest and engage. The ongoing inquiry into how I show up (for myself and them) feels essential.

Connect with Lisa Frias on Instagram: @lisaafrias

To see more work form MFA@CIIS candidates and alumni, follow MFA@CIIS on Instagram and Medium!

Edited: @dean_talamantez

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Blog of the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Writing program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA, U.S.A.

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