New play tackles stigma around mental illness in Montreal's black community

Abena Bentley knows what it's like to feel like an outsider because of mental illness.

She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2001, and said the social impact was one of the hardest parts.

"People would look at you differently, say 'oh she's crazy, she's in a mad house.' It was tough for me to deal with."

Bentley has come a long way almost 20 years later, but she says there is still a stigma around discussing mental health issues.

"It's a topic that's usually frowned upon and shied away from in the black community," she said.

Bentley, an actor and a graduate of the Dawson College theatre program, is taking on several roles centred around this issue, as part of a new play called Sharing Our Stories, Telling Our Lives.

The play, written by Lydie Dubuisson and Rachael Van Fossen, is a work of verbatim theatre, which means the script is pieced together from real interviews conducted with community members young and old.

Bentley and the other actors will take on multiple characters and tell their stories exactly as they were delivered to researcher and assistant director Quinlan Green.

"We're bringing [the play] back to a lot of the same community centres," said Bentley.

"It's amazing, and it even means more to us as actors because we know we have to be as true to the script as possible. A lot of the time, someone who gave you those words will be sitting in the audience."

Teesri Duniya Theatre

She said this makes for a different kind of theatre experience, an intimate one where the play is directly in dialogue with the community that helped to create it.

The diverse group of people interviewed ranges from teenagers to elders and grandparents.

Bringing together all these perspectives on mental illness will hopefully bring the topic more into the open.

"I'm really hoping that it's going to start a conversation and that people are going to realize and recognize that mental illness is something bigger than what we can kind of shove to the side," said Bentley.

"People need support, they need to know that they're not alone."

Sharing Our Stories, Telling Our Lives is produced by Teesri Duniya Theatre in partnership with Black Mental Health Connections. A pay-what-you-can performance will be held Saturday Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. at the Jamaica Association of Montreal (4065 Jean Talon West).

Another performance will be at St. Jean Brebeuf Parish in Lasalle, Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10.