Patrisse Cullors art is a magnified glass, an amplified moment in the raw and vulnerable stories of the invisible. Using theatre techniques, visuals, audio, and dance, her works render bare the narratives of state-induced trauma while lifting up a path towards healing. Her work ultimately asks the audience to identify themselves in relationship to various forms of violence, be it coded in silence behind jail walls or in the coming out stories of people of color. Wielding discomfort as her medium, art becomes an invitation to shed complicity and engage broader questions of systemic violence and spiritual rejuvenation.
Trained in Theater of the Oppressed and dance, Patrisse has worked as a artist resident, dancer, choreographer, designer, stylist, producer, and director in various productions since 2005. Highlighted below is a collection of her most significant self-conceived projects.
STAINED: An Intimate Portrayal of State Violence
In 2012 the ACLU launched a class action lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for abuses in the jail system. Having read the 86 page report, Patrisse decided to create a performance art piece that highlighted her brother’s story of being brutalized in the county jail while dissolving the disconnect between the conditions inside custody and the community outside. That piece became STAINED: An Intimate Portrayal of State Violence, a powerful and intimate performance where mere caution tape separated the audience and artists. A recording of Patrisse’s voice could be heard reading correspondence between her mother and brother detailing the beatings he was forced to endure. Meanwhile several people could be seen within the caution tape displaying various behaviors from push-ups and escape attempts to laughing and crying uncontrollably. The group would occasionally turn to the monotonous task of wheatpasting the ACLU’s jail abuse lawsuit to the wall. The piece stained the audience in a way that they could not leave the performance able to wash their hands clean of the abuse incarcerated people experience. STAINED toured for a year around Los Angeles County – and ignited a movement. Audiences wanted to do more than watch the piece, they wanted to change the county jail system, The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence was born.
Watch the STAINED preview:
Pushing the Envelope
This solo 2013 performance piece featured Patrisse displaying enlarged copies of the envelopes and letters that she and her father exchanged while he was in prison. After a series of emotional correspondence, the last envelope she presents is addressed to the heavens. Patrisse’s father died in 2009 just months after he was released from prison. Their relationship developed within the confines of his incarceration, a situation that ultimately contributed to his death. Pushing the Envelope also served as a way for Patrisse to give more agency to herself and her father.
I say that him being incarcerated most of his life killed him. I say that because folks who are on the inside age and their life span is over much earlier than those who are able to live on the outside and a healthy life. This piece is dedicated to him, it’s dedicated to me, it’s kind of like an ode to our relationship and it’s about giving me more agency to say ‘goodbye father and thank you for everything you’ve given me.’ He spent most of his life behind bars, I spent most of my life writing him while he was behind bars, so it was a really powerful piece for us.
Watch a collection of performances including a short clip of Pushing the Envelope:
An Evening With Warriors: Speaking the Unspoken
In July of 2013 Patrisse curated a pop-up piece performed outdoors on a U-Haul truck called Warriors: Dressed in Queer Cloaked in Now. Six months later at Highways Performance Space that piece had evolved into An Evening With Warriors: Speaking the Unspoken. Often overshadowed by racial trauma and her brother’s jail trauma, Patrisse wanted a venue to express her and others’ queer trauma through a social justice and intersectional lens. The performance highlights four queer and trans people of color’s stories, stories that are often untold. An Evening With Warriors brought family, friends, and strangers together to share in their stories.
Watch the post performance Q&A:
POWER: From the Mouths of the Occupied
Developed during her visiting fellowship at the Arcus Center for Social Justice and Leadership, Patrisse directed the 2015 performance of POWER: From the Mouths of the Occupied and brought stories of Black folks directly impacted by state violence to the stage. Co-produced by Damon Turner, the multi-media production utilized theatre, live instrumentation, and local artists to draw audiences into an experiential narration of the 1951 We Charge Genocide document submitted to United Nations for crimes against Black people in America. The piece asked audiences to unpack the question of how current police state practices across the country reflect genocidal practices named and still relevant in the document. An intergenerational group of Black people (mostly from Los Angeles) performed short monologues based off their personal experience with state violence.
A short video overview:
Patrisse, Janaya Khan, and FOREMOST curated Malcolm Revisited, a tribute to freedom fighter Malcolm X. This series of workshops, live performance pieces, and visual exhibits explored the life, legacy, and impact of this iconic historical figure, as well as his influence on the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Featuring powerful retrospectives from Prentis Hemphill, Aaryn Lang, and Brayan Gonzalez, the performance explored Malcolm’s effect on each person individually as well as collectively.
#BlackLivesMatter has pushed the country to have a new conversation about what it means to protect Black lives. Art allows for conversations to happen across generations, gender, race and ability. This piece served as a contribution to #BlackLivesMatter, Malcolm X, and the past and current freedom fighters in this movement.
See the video by Maxwell Addae that opened the 2 performances below:
POWER: From the Mouths of the Occupied Seattle
In October of 2016, Patrisse brought Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied (see above) to Seattle, a city often referred to as “progressive.” Yirim Seck, Faisal Provincial, KT, Hodan Hassan, Monique Franklin, Akilah Franklin, Jah-Vi’ “SJS” Cotten-Cohia, Luzviminda Uzuri “Lulu” Carpenter, and Marcel Baugh told personal stories highlighting their experiences with local state violence and their resilience as Black people. The cast performed 3 sold-out shows with rave reviews from the media including The Stranger, The Seattle Times, The South Seattle Emerald, and many others.