Julz Hale Mary’s House of Trauma

A performance piece in the form of a runway show takes on the mental health-industrial complex.

There’s been a lot of trauma on runways lately. If it’s not Harrison Ford nearly flying his plane into a commercial jet, it’s cops violently dragging a doctor off an overbooked flight. But trauma on runways takes many other insidious forms, too, which is why San Francisco performance artist Julz Hale Mary chose to use it as a trope to fight systemic oppression.

They would know, since it’s also their day job.

“I’ve been working at a mental-health nonprofit for six years,” Hale Mary says. “During this time, I had a lot to say about what I saw going on in these residential programs, with people who had mental-health issues. There was a lot of ableism and bureaucracy and well-intentioned people unconsciously acting violent.”

During that period, they’d had their own psychological issues to work out, and found relief through somatic therapy, which encourages people to claim ownership over their symptoms (as opposed to passively listening to “a psychologist telling you, ‘You are borderline,’ ” they say).

“If you’re feeling things really intensely and you’re rageful when you see someone rejecting you, if you were go to into somatic therapy, they would explore the color and texture of this rage,” Hale Mary says. “How big is it? Where are you holding it in your body? … You try to see what the rage wants and where it wants to go, and that’s powerful because you get to name what is happening to you.”

To name is to control, after all. But unlike the Biblical Adam lying in a field giving names to the animals in the Garden of Eden, it’s less about extending the dominion of Homo sapiens than about getting rid of troubling symptoms. If that sounds, well, a little too woo, Hale Mary concedes that they also bristled at the concept at first. (“I was like, ‘I shouldn’t have to do this,’ ” they say. “I shouldn’t have to pay someone to tell me how to feel, because I didn’t cause this bullshit.”)

The subsequent realization that trauma is less a mountain for any one individual to climb and more of a societal problem spurred them to create Trauma Is a Party (of One), a show at The Lab on Saturday, April 15, created in part with a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission.

“It’s not actually up to you,” they say, adding that taking back trauma is what queer people have done throughout history.

Mechanically, it’s not quite like watching Proenza Schouler models swish along at New York Fashion Week. Hale Mary says there will be “informal runways,” with bleachers on both sides.

Building off of Judith Butler’s idea that gender is a social construct that people are taught to perform, you might say that Trauma Is a Party (of One) looks at the idea that deeply traumatized people must “perform” sanity in order to stay human in a world that wishes to over-medicate them into a state of docility, robbing them of the ability to feel. Proenza gives way to Prozac, in other words.

“I think it speaks to assimilation, and to what we go through as queer people on a regular basis,” Hale Mary says. “I feel like queers, if anybody, can really take back the word ‘crazy,’ because we are the ones that have always been deemed the craziest.

“Sometimes, you have to act more normal to get through these hoops, or present yourself in a less flamboyant manner, whatever” just to get by, they add.

Glancing at Hale Mary’s Instagram and personal site, you see a joyous approach to creating politically outspoken looks that’s firmly in the Cindy Sherman vein, although they differentiate themselves from the reigning queen of film stills by noting that Sherman does a lot of “dead faces.” (As it happens, Hale Mary did not attend art school, has no formal training in any fashion-related field — and also claims not to have heard of Sherman before embarking on side projects pertaining to performance art and hyperfeminine drag.)

For the outfits the models will wear in Trauma, they leaned on “executive seamstress” Bobbi Rohs. San Francisco performers like Craig Calderwood, Titania Kumeh, Persia, and Sophia Wang will parade about the space. And through live video, Hale Mary will don the persona of “Dee Nile,” the malevolent head of a mental health institution who violates doctor-patient confidentiality, interrupting the proceedings to shed light on the invasiveness and unintended cruelty of a medical regime that mistakenly understands itself to be enlightened and benign. And then, this being a queer performance in the Mission, things turn into a big dance party with DJs Jasmine Infiniti, Shawna Shawnté, and Toshio.

To create Dee Nile, Hale Mary writes a short script and merges it with some improv to keep things humorous (not unlike a typical drag performer’s M.O.). It’s akin to some of their other work, such as a solo show this summer called The Real Housewives of Clovis, which juxtaposes reality TV drama with the comparatively mundane existence of women in the Central Valley who are married to “husbands who are very anti-women.”

That, no doubt, produces forms of trauma that overlap with the particular stresses and strains that many LGBT people endure. When asked which one reform they’d like to see in the way mental health is treated and discussed in the United States, Hale Mary responds unequivocally.

“I would want people to acknowledge violence,” they say. “Because violence happens all the time. No one’s perfect, me included. We all need to deconstruct that to be better people.

“The whole goal of mental health is to help people,” they add. “And getting rid of denial would be great, because if we could just acknowledge how things are fucked, then we could move on from there and actually start doing something.”

Julz Hale Mary: Trauma Is a Party (Of One), Saturday, April 15, 7:30 – 11 p.m., at The Lab, 2948 16th St., 415-864-8855 or thelab.org

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