Suvendrini Lena’s immersive Here Are the Fragments. explores the impact of racism and migration history on mental health

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Dr Suvendrini Lena

As a Theatre Centre Residency playwright and the staff neurologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Suvendrini Lena has found a powerful way to combine her two passions: neurology and the arts. Although the two roles appear seem incongruent, they are complements in her work, as seen in her latest play Here Are the Fragments, currently playing at The Theatre Centre.

Here Are the Fragments is an immersive work based on the psychiatric writing of French West Indian political theorist Frantz Fanon (1925–1961). Interweaving narrative with sensory exploration and scientific and historical analysis, it consists of live performances within an interactive installation. The plot is unfolded in the “fragments” of the title. It follows a psychiatrist early in his training as he develops psychosis and, ultimately, treatment-resistant schizophrenia. Later, his son Eduard struggles to connect with his father, while grappling with difficult decisions about his father’s treatment. 

Lena first got the idea for Fragments about 20 years ago while working as a volunteer music therapist at the Queen Street Psychiatric Hospital (now CAMH). She vividly recalls a Black woman in her 40s who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and would wander the halls, singing her own version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”: “She sang, ‘take me home, country roads, to the place where I belong, west Jamaica, Mountain mama – take me home’. Her words have haunted me ever since. She has been a catalyst for a lot of reflection on the impact of race and migration history on mental health.”  

Actual work on the piece began five years ago, with the idea of a theatrical installation that would experiment with sound and interactive audio to bring audiences closer to the perceptual experience of living with schizophrenia. In fact, “the first iteration of the work, in our first residency showing, was just me alone, presenting research that I had done at the archives of the Queen Street Provincial Asylum. It wasn’t theatrical at all.” The second showing was a sound installation which Lena created with her early collaborator, sound designer Lyon Smith. “We created a track of 10 voices and subtracted them sequentially, in a representation of treatment that also results in loss.”

People living with schizophrenia “hear voices” and fear loss of control over their own thoughts and bodies. So Here Are the Fragments invites audiences to experience the challenge of distinguishing internal from external voices. In this newest iteration of the work, the structure of the piece – which is deliberately poetic and loose – reflects this concept, and actually invites audiences to craft their own unique experiences. The Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre and Gallery has been transformed into an immersive interactive installation, designed to offer spaces for exploration, investigation, and discovery. “The structure of the work is non-linear, and contains scenes that are really small fragments of experience spanning about 20 years. Time is scrambled, and a story must be assembled and re-assembled by the audience, in the way that the main character must reassemble his own fragments.” 

Kwaku Adu-Poku and Allan Louis; photo by Dahlia Katz

Scenes unfold around audiences in a fabric woven from sound, video and live actors. “The visual and auditory installation is also fragmented and contains repetitions of images and sounds, presented to provoke thoughtfulness about perceptual shifts and voices that we all may hear. It’s about seeing connections and common ground.” This potential chaos is balanced by areas of retreat, whispering voices, Fanon’s books and archival materials, interviews with psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and people living with schizophrenia – artefacts and experiences that coalesce to provoke reflection on how racism and mental health intersect. 

People who experience psychosis or hear voices, along with scientists and physicians all debate and contest the meaning of “schizophrenia”, sometimes for different reasons or from different perspectives. Lena is interested in this debate, “in all the questions and competing narratives. Because it is clear that the diagnosis of schizophrenia carries profound stigma and no hope of cure.” She finds this “unacceptable” truth a catalyst for questions. “What do we as a society need to do differently to change this prognosis? Do we need new definitions? Do we need new scientific strategies? Do we need a fundamentally different approach to supporting people with severe mental illness? What role does trauma play in causing psychosis, and what about traumas that are caused by the very structure of the society we live in?” Fragments does not pretend to answer all of these questions, but it does examine the role of racism in causing trauma and the impact of that trauma on mental health because, in Lena’s mind, “this is a risk factor that we can all work to change”.

Her frank hope is that Fragments will challenge the othering of people with psychosis by promoting curiosity, understanding, and awareness of the “fluidity and fragility of all human perception and experience”. Lena would like audiences to leave the show inspired to re-think diagnostic criteria and traditional approaches to treatment. Astonishingly, no new medications or therapies have been established in the last 50 years. People living with psychosis and schizophrenia have few choices – and “this must change,” she asserts. 

During the run, The Theatre Centre is hosting panels and events in addition to performances: 

  • November 22: a post-show talkback with Ngozi Paul (Development Producer, Artist/Activist) and Psychiatrist Collaborator Araba Chintoh 
  • November 23: Our Patients and Our Selves: Experiences of Racism Among Health Care Workers with facilitator Dr. Fatimah Jackson-Best of Black Health Alliance  
  • November 24: Fanon Today: A Creative Symposium – panel, reading, and creative discussion featuring David Austin, Frank Francis, Doris Rajan and George Elliot Clarke

Offered the final word, Lena expresses both urgency and expansiveness: “I hope people will come out and see Here are the Fragments. I would like people to think hard about what we can all do to create a society where people are not objectified and psychologically damaged due to our shared ideas about race or other historically-constructed categories.” She notes that psychosis feels frightening, yet is a part of our human experience. “It’s understandable. It is relatable. It’s not ‘out there.’ We are striving for a theatrical form that allows audience members to really lean in to the story and also to their own modes of perception. Come with an open mind; be a part of our experiment. Explore!”

A scene from Here Are The Fragments.

News You Can Use

What: Here Are the Fragments. by Suvendrini Lena│Co-Director: Leah Cherniak │Co-Director: Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu │Assistant Director: Abigail Whitney│Production Manager: Rebecca Vandevelde│Set and Video Designer: Trevor Schwellnus│Associate Set Designer: Victoria Wallace│Lighting Designer: Shawn Henry│Sound Designer: Nick Murray│Stage Manager: Tara Mohan│Video Design Consultant and Programmer: Frank Donato│Head of Wardrobe and Costume Designer: Madeline Ius │Theatre Centre Producer: Alexis Eastman│Presented by The Theatre Centre and ECT Collective

Performed by Kwaku Adu-Poku, Peter Bailey, Allan Louis, Kyra Harper

When: On stage until December 1, 2019; running time: 120 minutes

Where: The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario

Info and Tickets: theatrecentre.org

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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