A new type of performance experience that centers compassion first and foremost is returning to Atlanta.
The nonprofit Compassionate Atlanta has partnered with Candler School of Theology at Emory University to present an original performance about the stigma Black women face in faith spaces. “Re-Storying Dignity: From Stigma to Compassion” will play at the Cannon Chapel at Emory University on March 14 and is free to those who wish to attend. The script, written by reverend and playwright Cassandra Henderson, focuses on five real women who share their true stories.
“It’s a storytelling performance,” said Iyabo Onipede, co-director of Compassionate Atlanta. “These are not actors. They are performers of their own stories.”
Compassionate Atlanta, which is a grassroots nonprofit organization that aims to raise awareness about the benefits of compassion around the Atlanta area, first put on the play last year at its first-ever CompassionCon in Grant Park. According to Onipede, the organization received a grant from the Wake Forest University School of Divinity in order to educate people about HIV in faith spaces. In 2020, African Americans represented 12% of the United States population, but accounted for 42% of new HIV diagnoses, according to HIV.gov.
“They wanted to educate and be creative in Black faith spaces to address this issue,” Onipede said. “For us at Compassionate Atlanta, it comes under our umbrella of stigma awareness, reduction, and elimination in our communities.”
Onipede knew Henderson from their time at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, which is partnering with Compassionate Atlanta for the performance. It took a while to make the timing work, but eventually Henderson, who holds an undergraduate degree in theater and a masters in film production, came on board to write the show.
“I really liked the idea behind the exploration of stigma – women of color, particularly Black women’s voices, at the forefront talking about their unique and shared experiences in navigating stigma, its implications, and how it appears,” Henderson said. “It’s not monolithic. It happens in so many different ways through people’s lives.”
The performance features five women who will be telling their own stories. The women are Connie L. Johnson, who is an HIV/AIDS survivor and whose mother passed from an AIDS-related illness in 1995; Ashley Jordan, a military veteran who was wrongly incarcerated for more than a decade; Onnie Poe, a school counselor and mental health advocate; Dr. Chantrise Sims-Holliman, who became an amputee in 2018 at the age of 45; and Trina P. Jackson, an Imam/ah for the Atlanta Unity Mosque and a new performer for this year’s iteration of the performance.
Jackson is replacing a different performer from last year who was unable to return. Henderson said the new combination of people makes the performance a bit different than it was before.
“Under normal circumstances, in my world of theater and film, if you have told this story and the original performer can’t get there, you hire another person to tell the story,” Henderson said. “But with this project, it’s not just about the telling of the story, it’s about telling your own authentic story. So it’s not enough to just put an actor in the place of the person whose story cannot be told this time.”
Henderson worked tirelessly alongside the women to come up with the script for this performance. She interviewed each of them individually with about 15 questions centered around issues of stigma and how the women related to faith. The interviews ranged from roughly 90 minutes to almost four hours in some cases. After that, Henderson got to writing and made a conscious effort to find the parts of the stories that intersected and weaved together. Once the women read through the performance for the first time, she gave them space to give her feedback and help her revise the story so it felt true to their experiences.
“It’s the telling of their individual stories, but it’s also a telling of their shared stories,” Henderson said. “As women of faith and no faith, or women of re-imagined faith – women who have overcome and are still overcoming and are still healing, and what that process looks like.”
Henderson said that one of the connecting links she found while writing the piece was a sense of hope.
“There is a rhythm, I would say, or a path to the telling of their story that was shared. They all talked about this very big something, that they had to navigate. But they always cling to hope,” Henderson said. “There is a shared resilience that they have that created a natural way of walking through the script.”
This year, in addition to the performance at Emory, Compassionate Atlanta also took the play to a couple of rural communities in the state.
Part of our goals and our strategic plan this year is to have our rural partners and our urban partners talking,” Onipede said. “So we’re taking this play into rural Georgia. We are valuing our rural communities as community. We leave no one behind.”
Another difference from last year’s production is the Atlanta space in which it will be performed. At CompassionCon last year, the performance was seen outside in Grant Park. This year, it will be in a chapel.
“I want to see how that vibe carries,” Onipede said. “I think it will be much more intense, because it will contain all that’s going on.”
After the performance, which runs a little under an hour, there will be a short conversation with the audience about stigma and how they can talk to people in their own lives about stigma reduction.
“The play is to help people think about stigma,” Onipede said. “We don’t think about it. We think about a person’s rights – you know, can a trans body go to any bathroom? We think about these things, we politicize them. But what about the wholeness of the person? At the core of all exclusion is the fact that it is dehumanizing.”
“Re-Storying Dignity: From Stigma to Compassion” is playing at Cannon Chapel at Emory University at 515 South Kilgo Circle NE. The performance starts at 6 p.m. and is free to attend. You can reserve a spot here.