My Body, My Pain, My Liberation

January 19, 2019

Contact: Carole Cannon — 769 428 8043

Jackson, MS — Southern Echo and Sarah Lawrence College are partnering on a ground-breaking project to help the LGBTQ community in MS learn a powerful healing way to deal with the trauma of living with chronic illnesses – particularly AIDS/HIV.

Men in Mississippi who have sex with men are at particular risk for HIV/AIDS, according to the MS Department of Health. So when ViiV Health Limited, a pharmaceutical company that specializes in developing therapies for HIV infections, reached out to Southern Echo, a Jackson-based organization with a national reputation for effective community organizing, its Executive Director, Rachel Mayes, asked Rebecca Johnson, a health advocate, expert in participatory action research and history to help design a project. Johnson, who was already a consultant for Southern Echo, reached out to her then colleague at Sarah Lawrence, Kathy Westwater, an award-winning choreographer and dance professor, to bring her expertise to the project.

The joint project, “My Body, My Pain, My Liberation,” combines community organizing with creativity to teach a healthy alternative to coping with chronic illness. Westwater has used dance to explore pain and trauma and its opposite, bliss, for the past two decades, and saw the opportunity to work with Southern Echo as “exciting.”  In dance, “you use the body,” she said, “so there’s no way to get away from the pain we all have. What I want is for people to use movement to explore their personal pain and trauma, and I hope that will help us better understand each other’s pain.”

Mayes wants people to look at chronic illness in a new way, she says. “I want the community to deal with chronic illness the way we deal with other issues we organize around — whether it be education or civic engagement. It’s the process of us centering and mobilizing the community to work together to help each other with our chronic illnesses.”

Southern Echo will organize around some of the other chronic illnesses prevalent in the state, including obesity, diabetes and different types of cancer, but because of the burdens of stigma and lack of acceptance of the LGBT community, Mayes said “we wanted our first effort to be AIDS/HIV.”

My Body, My Pain, My Liberation” is part of a growing trend to use arts and culture and community organizing to address and help heal trauma and pain. Johnson is hoping that the work in Jackson will call attention to the need for “marginalized groups and people with low-incomes to have a voice in the fight for health equity” and for people to learn how to create something out of their pain.” 

Since this summer, Johnson and Westwater have conducted workshops on accepting the LGBT Community (with Care 4 Me, an organization that offers support to men with AIDS/HIV)  and the process of exploring pain and trauma using creativity, including one on the 18th and 19th of this month.     

On January 20, at 1 PM at Center Stage of Jackson Medical Mall, Westwater and a group of New York- and North Carolina-based dancers will perform an excerpt from “Rambler: Worlds Worlds Apart,” a work that allowed dancers to explore their pain and trauma. “We use the music of Julius Eastman, an African American composer, because it’s so beautiful,” Westwater said, “but also because it sounds as if it were written to be danced to, and there’s not a lot of music out there like that.”   

Westwater and the other dances will perform the world premiere of “Rambler” at New York Live Arts (219 West 19th Street) at 7:30 PM on February 14th, 15th and 16th.

Westwater was awarded the Lumberyard 2017 Solange MacArthur Award for New Choreography to create “Rambler.

                                                            –CC–