The Power of Storytelling: Healing from a Cult Experience

May 1, 2023 | by Ui-Seng François

Two summers ago, right before I began my junior year at Peabody, I met a group of people who claimed to know all the answers to the questions I was seeking. They were people who I admired and came to trust. Open to new knowledge and desperate for spiritual guidance, I indulged in their services. What came next was a whirlwind of events that turned my life upside down and is the incentive for my upcoming project entitled Be Free.

On Saturday, May 13th, 2023 at 1pm, Be Free: A Journey Back to Self will premiere at my alma mater, the Baltimore School for the Arts. Be Free is an interdisciplinary play that shares the story of my personal experience of being coerced into a spiritual cult and my journey onward toward healing and reclaiming my identity. Embodied in dance, live music, and spoken word, Be Free guides audiences through my odyssey of lost and found and aims to empower and serve as a communal space for healing and liberation.

The Creative Process

About a year and a half ago, I was sitting in my sunlit room journaling about my recent cult experience. It was in this moment that the idea came to me to create something artistic from what had happened. Writing has been an integral part of my healing process, as well as making music and, of course, dancing. It then occurred to me that this is what my senior capstone would be about. After spending 3 years dancing in a conservatory program, I had longed for an opportunity to use my voice again and call upon the theater training I received from my time at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The idea to wield all of my creative expressions to tell this story was invigorating.

Ever since I got away from the cult, I knew I had to seek justice somehow. I couldn’t turn to law enforcement because, technically, it was all “consensual”. So I decided this project would be my way to seek justice! However, it wasn’t until I took the Pitching Your Creative Idea (PYCI) class as part of the Breakthrough Curriculum that I began to develop a concrete vision for the piece. PYCI led me from one step to the next, paving the path to the fruition of Be Free. In this class, with support from my peers, TA Midori Ataka, and Professor Jeannie Howe, I drafted a project description, timeline, and budget that culminated in my application to the Peabody Launch Grant. I am grateful to have won this award that enabled me to fully actualize my vision and compensate all the artists who bring it to life.

I spent the past year gathering inspiration, researching, and workshopping my ideas. I have a handy dandy notebook in which I compile all my reflections, creative ideas, and inspirational quotes that relate to both the piece and my personal healing. (See notebook excerpts in images below.) I’m grateful for my Critical Dance Studies class taught by Professor Salvador Barajas, which explores the intersectionality of identity, art, and activism. We studied the inspiring work of artist activists like Urban Bush Women, a dance company that feels particularly aligned with my own beliefs regarding interdisciplinary art and healing. Overall, this class has guided me in ways I could make a meaningful impact in my community with this project, and I am extremely grateful for it.

I also spent the past year workshopping ideas for the piece. Last summer, I attended the American Dance Festival, where I created and shared an excerpt of Be Free and received valuable feedback from esteemed artists. I also had the opportunity to share excerpts at various local community events such as: Peabody Coffeehouse; Sankofa, Sanctuary Christian Arts Center’s Annual Arts Celebration; Voices that Heal, a Saving Me 4 Me fundraising event in support of survivors of human trafficking; & Kinetic Innerg, a celebration of Baltimore dance. And on March 12th, 2023 I hosted my own workshop performance and talkback session for which I invited mentors, teachers, and peers to experience the work and provide guidance.

Sankofa Annual Arts Celebration
Voices that Heal

For the workshop, I presented a draft of Act 1 of Be Free. The feedback that I received has helped me recognize what elements of the piece translated well for an audience and what parts needed more clarity. I learned about pacing, giving context, and the way different themes could be presented creatively. Although I only presented the first act, the feedback that I received informed my approach to creating the rest of the piece. The other element of the workshop performance that was very meaningful to me was seeing the impact that sharing this story, though only the beginning, had on my audience. For example, one audience member named Melanie Hood-Wilson shared: “Ui-Seng is a gifted storytell[er] sharing a dark and challenging experience that taps into themes that touch many of our lives. Her piece is deeply personal, physically exciting, and dramatically moving. The music only lends additional gravitas to her piece. I can’t wait to see it as it evolves to completion.” The testimonials were affirmations and helped fuel me through the rest of the creative process.

I am the producer, writer, choreographer, and lead performer of Be Free; however, this piece would not be possible without my collaborators. I am grateful to be performing alongside four incredibly talented musicians to bring this story to life: Aidan Taylor (Jazz Bass/Recording Arts ‘26), Ethan Bailey-Gould (Jazz Guitar ‘24), Koleby Royston (Jazz Percussion/Recording Arts ‘26), and Thomas Schinabeck (Jazz Saxophone ‘25). A special thanks to my creative team and mentors including my stage and production manager, Makenna Brielle Charles (Dance ‘26); my director and dramaturg, Nomalanga Dalili; the lighting designer, Aazam Yaqoob; my advisors, Brinae Ali and Salvador Barajas; and the Peabody LAUNCHPad team!

This project has been a long time coming, yet I feel the journey has just begun. Many unexpected things arose throughout this creative process. The truth is, I am still healing. This is something that I discover every time I go into the studio to create, reliving my experience in order to share it with others. Though I have come a long way, there are times when I still struggle with self-doubt and the superstitions that linger on from my experience. And so, the story is not over. One thing I hope people will gain from experiencing this piece is the value of keeping on. The power of persistence. We are stronger than we know. I hope that sharing my journey will be a reminder of the resilience that resides within each of us, remembering that we are all in positions of power through the choices that we make. Remembering that no matter what, it is never too late.

Have faith.

I hope to see you on May 13th! Peace.

About the Performance
Saturday, May 13, 2023
1:00 PM EDT
Baltimore School for the Arts


Ui-Seng François


BA 2023

Ui-Seng François is a multidisciplinary artist from Baltimore, MD, who strives to create work as a means for social Healing. She has performed on Broadway as well as professionally across the Baltimore area. Her artistic disciplines include dance, acting, filmmaking, photography, music, and creative direction. She is a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts Acting Program (‘18) and is currently pursuing a BFA in dance at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins.