THIS IS MY BRAVE: Northern Va. Performance Inspires As Non-Profit Group Flourishes. 20 Shows Planned In 2018

NAMI Northern Virginia President Jeanne Comeau, Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr., and This Is My Brave originator Jennifer Marshall after performance.

“One day we will live in a world where we won’t have to call it “brave” when talking about mental illness. We’ll just call it talking.”

(4-6-18) NAMI Northern Virginia teamed up with This Is My Brave to stage a powerful performance yesterday (Thursday) evening in Sterling, Virginia.

If you haven’t heard about This Is My Brave – The Show, you soon will.

Thanks to the boundless enthusiasm and smarts of its co-founder, Jennifer Marshall, and her leadership team, the grass-roots non-profit is flourishing.

Last night’s performance was its 38th since its founders, Jennifer and Anne Marie Marklin Ames, decided in 2013 to launch a Kickstarter campaign to rent a theater and produce  a professional-quality, stigma-fighting show about mental illness. Each performance is different because cast members are area residents who use a variety of their talents – personal essays, poems, music – to tell their recovery stories and the “brave” moment when they made public their mental illnesses.

This Is My Brave will produce 20 shows – that’s right 20 shows – this year alone in the U.S.

(It already has done two in Australia and is considering requests from other foreign nations.) In addition, This Is My Brave is the subject of a coming documentary, has been featured in Oprah Winfrey’s Magazine, and has its own Youtube channel where you can watch previous shows.  (This weekend, a This Is My Brave production will be performed in Fort Lauderdale.)

Jennifer explained that last night’s performance was especially poignant because today would have been her co-founder’s 60th birthday. Ms. Ames died unexpectedly last fall. Her passing caused Jennifer, who has bipolar disorder, to suffer a mental break, which she “bravely” described before the performance – a reminder that many mental illnesses never go away even though their symptoms can be treated and controlled.

The 250 seat Waddell Theater was filled near capacity when Jeanne Comeau, the president and CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Northern Virginia chapter, welcomed everyone. Comeau has done an outstanding job building our local NAMI chapter into one of the nation’s best.

My son, Kevin, an original cast member of This Is My Brave, and I found ourselves sitting next to Fairfax Police Chief Colonel Edwin C. Roessler Jr, who has been a strong supporter of mental health reforms in the county, especially Crisis Intervention Team police training. I wish the entire Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and county officials engaged in implementing Diversion First  would watch a This Is My Brave performance. If they did, they would see proof of why jail diversion and strong community supports help change and save lives.

While each performance by last night’s ten cast members was compelling, I was deeply moved when I listened to Daria Akers tell her recovery story and heard Joanna Walker sing an original song written by her daughter. Daria served with me on an Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission mental health committee and Joanna has been a strong activist in NAMI Northern Virginia for years, formerly serving on its board. Their personal accounts touched my heart, which is what This Is My Brave, does so well. It puts a human face on mental illnesses and empowers both the cast members and the audience. Attending a performance becomes an emotional bonding experience between the cast and those watching. While the stories are always heart wrenching, the show ultimately is inspiring.

I am constantly impressed with the resilience of individuals who are living meaningful and productive lives despite often overwhelming circumstances.  As one cast member mentioned  – it is not what happens to you that matters, but how you react to it.

Lisa Hamp recalled how she and her classmates at Virginia Tech pushed chairs and desks against a classroom door in 2007 when a mentally ill student committed a mass murder that left 33 dead, including himself. Because she was not physically wounded, she did not believe she needed help, only to later discover that she suffered PTSD. Like so many cast members, her experience led to her becoming an advocate who now helps educate law enforcement and school administrators.

In about a month, last night’s performance will be posted on the This Is My Brave youtube channel. I would encourage you to watch the Sterling, Virginia performance. The cast included Daria Akers, Lisa Andrews, Paige Reitz, Traci L. Taylor, Joanna Walker, Latoya Anzures, Lisa Hamp, Becca Lakin, Kevin Conn, and Caroline Ferrante. The show was directed by Carol Campbell. Program coordinators included Esther Lee, Laura Makl, and Kristen Marks, all NAMI No. Va. workers.

Other well-known No. Va. advocates in the audience, whom I had a chance to speak with, were Gina Hayes, Bob Cluck, and Gordon Dean.

I have always greatly admired Jennifer Marshall because she represents the power of a single individual to make a huge impact. Under her leadership, This Is My Brave is effectively liberating cast members and inspiring the public. And it all began with Jennifer and Anne Marie meeting at a neighborhood party and later sitting down at a kitchen table and brainstorming about what they could do to help others!




About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.