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C.J.: ‘This Is How We Heal’ grew out of a Minnesota-born actor/dancer doing the ‘heart work’

December 14, 2018

NYC-based actor/dancer/poet Leslie Lissaint is bringing her one-woman show about her difficult Minneapolis childhood home.

This Is How We Heal will play Monday only, 7:30 p.m., at Phoenix Theatre.

And its also my birthday, said Lissaint. Its very celebratory. Ive never performed my one-woman show in Minnesota, so Im very, very excited.

The 2012 UW-Madison and 2008 DeLaSalle grads first professional performance was as a kid at the Childrens Theatre Company. That was back when she was Leslie Thomas, a Lucy Craft Laney grade-schooler. She was member of a CTC outreach program, which she enjoyed so much that her mother paid for classes that led to her being a cast member in Mississippi Panorama.

At DeLaSalle, the academic and track standout was so heavily influenced by social science teacher Brad Casey that she almost forgot she wanted to be an actor. When I was a sophomore, he took a class to Brazil, and it changed my life, she said. I wanted to know more about the language, study colonialism Why are there so many black people in Brazil? and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. She attended UW on a full-ride scholarship and earned a degree in Portuguese and Latin American Studies.

The day after graduation, I moved to New York, she said. I had a friend who lived out here, and she knew I wanted to be an artist but she also knew I was very scared. I felt like I have this degree. I have to get a real job. I got a job at Catholic Charities, Brooklyn and Queens, as their volunteer specialist. The most money I ever made. I left that job after nine months. I was depressed. I went to acting school.

Focused on being an artist, Lissaint, who pays the bills as a certified personal trainer, has performed her solo show in New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Madison and Indianapolis. Her parents and one grandmother have seen the show. Now shes ready to perform before all my family.

Her husband, with whom she recently celebrated a fifth wedding anniversary, cannot attend the hometown show because Carvens Lissaint is currently playing George Washington on Broadway in Hamilton. Leslie is content to be surrounded by family and good friends such as Shvonne Johnson, African-American Cultural Liaison for Roseville Schools, who will lead a talk after the performance. Heres the trailer for the show: www.leslielissaint.com/this-is-how-we-heal.html

Q: What prompted you to write about healing?

A: In college, I was given a writing exercise: Write what scares you. I remember wanting to talk about my family. My dad was in jail, and I had a hard time talking about it. I would lie and make up a profession for him because I was ashamed. And my mother had a drug abuse problem and I never was able to really talk about it. I didnt have the words. I didnt understand. I wanted to write something about that.

Fast forward. I am part of a show by Mahogany L. Browne called Red Bone, performed in New York, California and North Carolina. Shes a huge poet, artistic director for Urban Word. Shes a poet who hired me to be a dancer in a show about her family. Hearing her talk her honest truth about her family inspired me to want to heal the way she did with poetry.

But not just poetry. Im also a dancer, and I also love music. And Im an actor. So I wanted to know is there a way that I could use art as a tool to heal from this family trauma. I remember right before my 26th birthday, I felt Im too old, not to be able to talk about this! When I was a kid I got panic attacks and anxiety attacks in my throat. When I finally shared all these pieces of poetry and family photos, I remember feeling this stronghold was finally letting me go.

Q: Did you try therapy?

A: I did. During the time I was writing my show, I knew I needed help. So I hired a dance movement therapist.

Q: Thats not sitting on the couch and talking therapy?

A: It is! Its sitting in an office and talking and sometimes wed stand and move. But it was a lot of sitting down and talking. [Laughs.] I thought it was going to be more movement.

Q: What is heart work?

A: The deep self-reflection of your own life and asking those difficult questions, really seeing the impact of others actions in your life and how you may or may not have allowed that to mold you.

Q: Will your show shock anybody from your childhood?

A: I think the word, instead of shock, is touch. People will see this and they will feel that they need to reveal something. Its like a call to action: I saw this girl free herself on stage. I need that joy.

Q: What songs do you find healing?

A: [Laughter.] We Are the Ones, Sweet Honey in the Rock. This is so good. [She found the question thought-provoking.] FiIl me up Tasha Cobbs; No Bondage Jubilee Worship; Yes, Shekinah Glory.

Q: Which poets inspired you?

A: For Colored Girls by Ntozake Shange. To know you can be a poet, an actor and a dancer. Thats what I do. I didnt know you could mix them all together. I read the play for the first time in college and was in the play in college. Another actor, woman playwright who inspired me is Rhodessa Jones. She also wrote a one-woman show called Big Butt Girls, Hardheaded Women.

C.J. can be reached at cj@startribune.com and seen on Fox 9s Buzz. E-mailers, please state a subject; Hello does not count.

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