Neurologist Suvendrini Lena's show opens up ways of understanding the effects of racism and mental illness
HERE ARE THE FRAGMENTS by Suvendrini Lena, Leah Cherniak and Trevor Schwellnus (ECT Collective/ Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen West). Runs to December 1. $22-$30. theatrecentre.org. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Incubated in the Theatre Centre’s Residency Program, this inventive production weaves lived and imaginary experiences of oppression and schizophrenia into a powerful immersive show that will have a lasting impact on its audience.
Creator Suvendrini Lena, a trained neurologist, was moved to examine how racism compounded by a diagnosis of schizophrenia can have devastating results on a person. The central story is that of Dr. Chauvet (Allan Louis), a Black psychiatrist who develops schizophrenia. One of the voices he hears is that of Frantz Fanon, a Caribbean-born psychiatrist and critical race theorist whose work in the 1950s analyzed the fragmenting impact of white supremacy and colonialism on Black consciousness.
The show begins in the foyer, which is covered from floor to ceiling in wires that seem to emulate neural pathways, with a forest projected onto the ceiling. Here we see Chauvet in a mental institution visited by his son Eduard (Kwaku Adu-Poku), who becomes increasingly upset as he tries to engage his unresponsive father.
After the initial scene, we’re let into the main room, followed by the actors, who perform intermittent scenes. The rest of the time we roam freely through the various sections: an old patient room containing two beds Fanon’s library, surrounded by bookshelves covered in philosophy and literature strips of booths, on the side of which are projected images of Chauvet speaking and headphones to listen along to various short monologues of his experiences as a patient.
There are other headphones distributed throughout the space – some hanging from the ceiling, others on chairs – where you can listen to personal accounts of actual schizophrenic patients. We are encouraged to interact with the set by reading papers and books, examining pictures and paraphernalia in Fanon’s library.
I wondered if there was enough to occupy a wandering audience for the full hour and 45 minutes, but Trevor Schwellnus’s set design is so intricate and engaging that the time flew by. His design allows the audience to flow in and out of spaces without congestion while reflecting the increased scattering of Chauvet’s mind.
The chemistry between the actors is evident, and some scenes are hauntingly resonant illustrations of Chauvet’s mental unravelling. The final scene brings us back to the present, where Eduard tries to help his father externalize his voices through a virtual reality program. It’s an interesting technique, but because the rest of the story veers away from their relationship, it’s hard to feel invested in the emotional stakes of their dynamic.
This rich collaboration – Leah Cherniak is credited as co-creator and co-director, Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu as co-director and Schwellnus as co-creator – is a sophisticated work of art that offers creative and effective ways to imagine what most of us will never experience, opening pathways to understanding some of the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society.