Healing through dramaDec 30, 2020 11:20AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
In order to fully comprehend how the divergent influences of Health and Theater have led Saharra Dixon to become a certified health specialist and dramatic arts facilitator at the age of 24, one simply needs to go back to her childhood in southern New Jersey, when she became mesmerized by the spoken and performed words of her father.
Lamont Dixon, aka Napalm Da Bomb, has been a prominent presence on the Philadelphia-area cultural scene for the past few decades, both as a poet/performer and as a teaching artist and mentor to young artists. Through his self-described “vibepoetics,” he has combined an eclectic blend of artistic genres – jazz, hip hop, blues and drama -- to give young people a dramatic language arts education.
As a child in Atco, N.J., Dixon often accompanied her father to his classrooms and workshops, and to her young eyes and ears, she saw that what her father was doing in service to others was not only an expression of his passion, but the honorable gift of leaving an imprint on those who came to see him.
To the young girl, watching her father was an immediate and powerful sensory overload of sounds and motion and pitch-perfect words that tangled with harmonious rhythm.
Dixon said that her father introduced his daughter to a variety of art forms as a child. She described that period of her life as “transformational.”
“I learned that it is magical to be able to represent the feelings, thoughts, emotions and metaphors of theater, in an effort to help people see themselves,” said Dixon, who graduated from the University of Delaware in 2018 with a degree in health behavioral science. “By doing so, it enables people to see themselves, and look inward in the hopes of finding emotional and behavioral growth.”
“To put the human experience up on stage allows us to examine our lives and see how we can behave in different ways.”
Today, the dovetailing of influences that began when she was a child – that also intersected with her early theater training at the New Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia – has paved the pathway to Dixon’s current work as a certified health education specialist and community-engaged theater artist. Through live workshops and performances, she visits schools, youth centers and non-profit organizations – several in Delaware – to curate interactive and educational arts-based health and social justice interventions, focusing much of her work on children/adolescents, young adults, women and minority groups.
Newark: Where Health and Theater collide
When Dixon arrived on the campus of the University of Delaware in the Fall of 2014 as a theater minor, she balanced the demands of higher education with the happy problem of owning supreme aspirations for what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to be an opera singer. She wanted to be the President of the United States. She wanted to be a veterinarian. She wanted to be a heart surgeon.
During her freshman year, Dixon took an introductory level medical anthropology course, merely to fulfill a requirement of graduation.
“I became fascinated with what was described in the class as the social determinants of health, and how our social standing and our environment play a big role in health outcomes, particularly for people of different socio-economic status, who are the victims of a system that sets them up for failure,” she said. “I began to learn that there is more to health that just a 15-minute visit to a doctor. I wanted to work in public health at a much more community-engaged level.”
By her sophomore year, Dixon declared a major in Health Behavioral Science, and took courses in behavioral change, personal health management, public and global health and women’s reproductive justice. She completed internships at Planned Parenthood of Delaware and the United Way of Delaware.
By the time she reached her senior year in Newark, the dots of Dixon’s theater and performing arts background and her academic studies finally began to connect. Searching for ideas for a term paper for a behavioral science course, Dixon remembered that she had read the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined by the playwright Lynn Nottage, which tells the story of women living in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.
In her senior year, she took a theater course called “Black History Live on Stage,” which used theater and other artistic elements of performance in telling the story of Black history.
“I was mind-blown with the idea that theater can be used as a mechanism to bring issues to life,” Dixon said. “I had been learning about public health for the past four years, but I also had been doing theater for all of my life, and I thought it would be an injustice if I put all of that theater training away.”
During her graduate study at New York University – where she received her master’s degree in January 2020 -- Dixon directed Bandaids: A Temporary Fix, which was performed with members of the Steinhardt Educational Theatre Youth Ensemble. The interactive play explored how school dress codes disproportionately target feminine bodies, and gave students the opportunity to not only act but also discuss the issues related to dress codes.
As a member of NYU’s Theatre & Health Lab, she co-wrote the interactive theater play Turbulence, which explores the experiences of Black and Brown people of color. By placing her characters in clinical settings, it engaged the larger world through drama therapy.
A conduit to breakthroughs, discoveries and positive outcomes
From her early experiences and training in theater to the University of Delaware; to her graduate work at NYU and to her career as a healing arts facilitator, the upward trajectory of Dixon’s path have now enabled her to begin her career as, quite simply, a conduit to breakthroughs, discoveries and positive outcomes.
* Dixon creates age-appropriate, and evidence-based sexual education programming to youth ages 10-21 in high-need communities and schools.
* She develops and facilitates interactive workshops that address mental health awareness, building strong relationships and preparing for a career.
* As the COVID-19 pandemic began this past spring, Dixon developed the #StayHomeProject, a community-based dramatic – and for now, virtual – “ethnodrama” that depicts how some people are coping with isolation during state-mandated quarantine, based on interviews she conducted with people of different socio-economic levels and the medical field. From this project, Dixon was able to connect the participants and community members with a network of advice and resources, therapists and COVID-19 relief funds.
* In June, she founded Soul Circle, an arts-based wellness center primarily for women and girls of color. It promotes a culture of health and wellness by helping these women reclaim and harness their power through socially-conscious arts in health programming including theater, yoga, dance, and more!
* Dixon is currently writing We’re Having a Party, a three-character play that invites children in the audience on the stage and help the actors prepare a party while making healthy food choices and using proper hygiene. It is scheduled to be presented virtually at a national arts and health conference in October, and following COVID-19, she aspires to bring the play to other youth audiences and perform it live.
“I have been lucky to work with people of all ages and cultures, but I continually find myself drawn to teenagers, young adults and minority populations, especially now with everything going on the world in terms of exploration of new ideas and concepts about social justice,” she said. “Theater by itself is not going to be the change. It has to be in connection with something else. Through these techniques, they can pick and choose how they want to see the world – and themselves -- in a different way.”
When Dixon speaks about the power of theater – and how the resolute strength of its messages can impact lives – she speaks from direct experience. When she was in middle school, she was cast in a stage adaptation of The Giving Tree, based on the book by Shel Silverstein. She played the tree.
“I remember at first I was irritated to be cast in what I thought was an insignificant role, but then as I began to learn my lines and understand the play, I realized that there was a lot more going on there,” she said. “I learned that it is a story about love and loss, and I became grateful for being able to tell this story to people.
“Even at that age, the play gave me an inkling of knowing that there is more to theater than just entertainment. Live theater – in any form -- helps us connect on a much deeper level to our own stories. I began to understand that if we are able to connect to a lot of audiences on a deeper level, we begin to connect people to who they are.
“I am passionate about being able to use the arts to heal, to inspire, and to foster change across cultures and life spans.”
To learn more about Saharra Dixon and her workshops and scripted performances, visit https://thedramatichealtheducator.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected]