A year after the controversial death of her sister, Oakland native, actress, and playwright, Kehinde Koyejo, finally saw her masterpiece come to life. Don’t Call Me Crazy: a Glimpse into the World of Mental Illness is a project featuring several playwrights who innovatively explore the world of mental illness by crafting stories that open dialogue and offer healing.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in Oakland, and I’m sitting in the warm, packed, and gorgeous Joyce Gordon Gallery. The InterACT Work’s theater production is all a buzz. Young girls with bright lime green shirts and big toothy smiles greet me. I’m handed a small green ribbon and told that it is a symbol of mental health, a symbol of hope.
“Art can pass boundaries, break the ice, and touch taboo topics; stigmatized topics. We need to stop suffering in silence,” said Koyejo, who is the Founder/Lead Artist of InterACT Works.
One day before what would have been her 50th birthday, Koyejo’s sister, Aisha Grimes, was found dead by her husband. She had overdosed on anti-depressants. Koyejo and her family worked tirelessly to get the label of suicide off of the death certificate. They were finally successful this year.
“We knew her and she loved life. It was an accident,” said Koyejo.
Koyejo started opening up about the loss of her sister and her own struggles with depression. Her sister’s death became the impetus for the Don’t Call Me Crazy project.
She reached out to various friends to see if they’d participate, and with no budget, but a lot of heart, an entire evening of plays and discussion was created.
“I realized people had similar stories, and those stories can give someone encouragement and validation,” said Koyejo.
The five featured playwrights (including Koyejo) shared the stage to explore depression, mania, medication, and stigma of mental illness.
Depression’s Daughter by Kineitha Carter tackled the complex relationship between two roommates, played by Carter and Kyndra Oberhauser, one who is experiencing severe depression and another struggling to have compassion.
Golden Gate by Nathan Yungerberg peeks into the unlikely friendship of a young medical student, portrayed by Gamal Chasten, and an older artist, portrayed by Isaac Henry, who is dealing with mania and has a complicated relationship with his muse and his medication.
Next Step by Kehinde Koyejo, stars Brittany Turner and Deanna Brown, who travel down a dark road to the final moments before someone takes their life.
Exchanged by Tina D’Elita explores the struggle of medication versus holistic treatment and the relationship between two sisters, played by D’Elita and Erika Yanin, learning to trust each other after the death of their mother.
Sunspot by Ameielle Zemach is Body Tales Performance meaning it is improvisational work that delves into the pain and the pleasure of a woman loving a man living with Bipolar Disorder.
Don’t Call Me Crazy was directed by Edris Cooper with stage directions by Karmyn Johnson.
While Koyejo says she didn’t have a blue print for the event, attendees might disagree. The works were phenomenal down to the way the space was held. Hosted by the out spoken- spoken word artist, Bri Blue, who used her dynamic energy to spark a conversation that most people try to avoid. Bre Williams from PEERS (Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services), a non-profit mental health organization in Oakland, facilitated a conversation about mental health and stigma.
“I’m hoping we can get to a place where get away from calling it mental illness and look at it as mental health. It is a health concern for everyone,” said Williams.
And much like a confessional at church, members of the audience started sharing their stories. One woman shared that she had been put on medications for her mania, but stopped because the sunrises didn’t look the same. Another woman shared that she was raised by functional alcoholics. One by one, people shared their stories, their mental health testimonies, their fear, and were completely vulnerable to strangers.
“In Japan, when asked about depression, they say the heart catches a cold. What do you do when you have a cold? You rest and you get better. If we could look at mental health here like that, maybe people will get treatment, medication or a natural approach. People don’t have to die and I’m hoping my work will raise awareness,” said Koyejo.
Koyejo is interested in continuing this crucial conversation. For scheduling a presentation or more information on Don’t Call Me Crazy contact Koyejo at 510-846-1229 or email her at [email protected].
Kelechi Ubozoh holds a degree in journalism from SUNY Purchase and was the first student reporter to have an Op-Ed piece published in The New York Times.The Brooklyn native’s first spark of interest for the the mental health field ignited after spending six months interviewing the New York homeless for her undergraduate thesis. After working as a print reporter for The Amsterdam News and Hometown Media Group in New York. Kelechi is excited to combine her love of research, writing, and connecting with the community with being instrumental in ending mental health stigma in the community.
When Kelechi isn’t exploring Oakland treasures, she’s singing in karaoke bars under the alias Vegas Cherry.