Creating wholeness
Djeli, the artist formerly known as William Forchion

Creating wholeness

Local artist Djeli examines the intersection of art and healing

MARLBORO — Djeli (formerly known as William Forchion) smiles widely when recalling the time he was in Los Angeles as a stunt double for the actor Louis Gossett Jr. on the set of the 2003 television sci-fi film Momentum.

“I spent the whole day with Louis, and he was so gracious, caring, and loving,” Djeli says of the actor.

Though Gossett, now an 86-year-old actor, is still active, “he thought this might be one of his last films, so he gave me his card at the end of the shoot and told me to contact him if I ever needed anything. I never did contact him but was so moved by this.”

Djeli's career includes wearing many different literal and figurative hats, including those of stunt performer, director, producer, poet, clown, acrobat, minister, father, coach, writer, storyteller, and teacher. He holds degrees from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, and the American Institute of Holistic Theology.

The Commons sat down recently with Djeli, at the home that he shares in Marlboro with his fiancée, Sara Longsmith, and their combined family of five children, ages 7, 13, 16, 16, and 20. We discussed the intersection of art and healing, his upcoming solo show Emancipation, his role as a U.S. Department of State cultural ambassador for the arts, and being an acrobat with Cirque du Soleil.

Here's an excerpt of our conversation. For more information on Djeli's work, visit

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Victoria Chertok: Let's start with place. How did you land in southern Vermont, and what do you like best about living here?

Djeli: My former wife and I purchased a house in Halifax near her father and planned to settle here, but we were immediately offered a contract to tour Asia for four years with Cirque Du Soleil, which we did. We finally settled in Vermont in 2001.

I love nature, and I love the country. I love that I can go through town and know people. I have a community here. I grew up in a small town - Hammonton, New Jersey - and wanted to be able to know my community.

We don't have to agree on things but there is a certain respect in that. If you are in trouble, I'm going to help you, and so many times, people have reached out to offer to help me. I appreciate that.

We do have our issues here, and part of why I'm still here is if I run from the issues I find here, I would find them where I land.

V.C.: I met you two years ago, when you were donating beautifully painted slate hearts - which you made - at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. How did that project evolve?

Djeli: Part of my message was to put my heart out into the world. For each person who got those hearts, it spawned many others painting hearts around town.

We got to show our hearts to the world, even when we were holding ourselves in a contained space.

Our hearts were out there, open and exposed, and we're told that is not the thing you do. We all have a heart. When one of us suffers, we all suffer.

V.C.: You changed your name recently to Djeli. How did that come about?

Djeli: My family gave me the name William. The name, William, was passed down through four generations from my great-grandfather to me.

But about a year ago, while sharing a poetry scribe on a Zoom call, someone referred to me as “djeli,” and something deep inside me leapt. I found that it is a West African word that has been mostly replaced with the word of French colonizers, “griot.” [According to Merriam-Webster, a griot is defined as “a class of musician-entertainers of western Africa whose performances include tribal histories and genealogies.”]

In subsequent calls, all of the members of the group referred to me only as “djeli,” and it felt great.

For my birthday this year, I spent three days in the forest on a vision quest. When I emerged from the forest, I was prepared to embrace who I was, who I am, and who I am becoming.

I was born William Forchion, and today I am Djeli.

V.C.: Describe the work you're doing.

Djeli: My show Emancipation, my story weaving, and all of my workshops - they are all about healing, about the spirit of Ubuntu, which means, “I am because you are, and you are because I am.” We are one. We are the same. When I look at you, I see myself.

Another thing I say is, “We are each other's medicine.” We are seeking the medicine we need to survive. The medicine we need is in nature, in community, in us.

The title Emancipation comes from the quote by [Jamaican political activist, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator] Marcus Garvey: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body none but our self can free the mind.” We can be set free and still be trapped in our mind.

We're dealing with one big issue: We have forgotten how we are connected to all Beings. [Because] we have fractured as a community, we are dealing with racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, etc.

V.C.: Tell me about your process of transformation and becoming, and about healing through art.

Djeli: The process of becoming is the jumping off point. This is exactly what I'm leaning into: the ongoing process of transformation and becoming. The intersection of art and healing. I used to think that healing was something you did when you were broken or bruised, and now I realize that healing is a continual process.

I spent 30 years as a professional clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and recognize that laughing is an exaggerated encouragement of what we need to do to live - to breathe. We create a vibration to that breath which is called laughter. I have traveled the world and recognize that despite our differences we all laugh and cry in the same language.

Through my art, who I am now is not who I'm going to be in five minutes from now, and that is the perpetual state of becoming. I support people in removing the walls that divide themselves into wholeness - a mechanic, a rock star, a dad, a spouse. We set ourselves up for this fracture with the question we so often ask children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As if we can do only one thing, and that is the thing that defines us.

My wholeness is dependent on my being a complete emotional being as well as accepting my capabilities. By fully being we can do many things and not have to be defined by what we do well and what we struggle with.

One candle is not diminished by lighting another candle. The light from one candle may not seem like much, yet the fire from one candle can start a bonfire.

My goal is just to show up in the places I'm not expected to be. I want to show up in ways that are necessary. I want to be the one who encourages others to be their fullest selves.

V.C.: You create art that “connects audiences to promote emotional, spiritual, and mental growth” and recently received a Windham County Arts Fund award of $1,500. Tell me about your show, Powerful Words. What do you hope participants will come away with?

Djeli: I'm hoping for a renewed openness for self for each participant. Parts of this are wrapped in self-healing, land healing, ancestral healing, and the story that we're living in. We travel each day and go to work. We are on this land. The land has a story that it's telling: how the rivers run, how the mountains were formed. We are all part of that. We connect into the micro and the macro, and we zip in between the two.

We start to understand ourself and our story and some of the things that informed our story. I use story weaving, taking the micro and the macro, and I mix it together in a way so that participants can tell their stories. The stories come out in written form, in spoken form, in movement.

I'm connecting with the resources of writing it down and speaking it out, and with ways of moving it out. I am hopefully unlocking stories that are hidden in our DNA.

I hope people will step differently into their challenges, look differently at their life, and look at the path that brought them here.

V.C.: Tell me about your performance in your show Emancipation: A Celebration of Soul. What can participants expect?

Djeli: It's a healing celebration ceremony. I use the stories of four generations of the Mitchell family. My great-grandfather was born enslaved, and his identifying factor was, “When do I become human?” Then it transfers to my grandfather, how he passed on to his children what it means to be human. Then it goes from my grandfather to my mother.

Each of the characters of the show represent different aspects on the medicine wheel: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

It starts with the mental: a thought - “When did I become human?” - from my grandfather. My mother emotionally connecting to all these things, how does she support her children? She was a teacher, so she was really interested in the mental aspects of things. The show contains poetry that ties into each of those aspects.

Along the way, the audience is encouraged to call and response. Each person weaves their stories into the show to let the spirit move through each person.

I premiered this show in St. Johnsbury in May. It was supported by Catamount Arts, Vermont Arts Council and Clemmons Family Farm.

V.C.: In 2017 you were selected to be a U.S. Department of State Cultural Exchange Ambassador for the Arts, making two trips to Turkmenistan. What was your experience like?

Djeli: I went there twice in 2017; there were three of us and, after going the first time, I didn't want to call myself a “cultural exchange ambassador.” I was a circus expert. There were all these other people who were great. You did that, so that's who you are. It's pretty closed off.

We were limited to 10 days in the country and in that time, half was in the capital city Ashgabat, where we worked with members of the state circus and we worked with the ministry of culture; they have ballet, classical painting, and circus.

We helped them get more equipment. We used interpreters. We worked with professional acrobats at the Circus Training Center because they asked for us specifically.

It felt great. I worked with some of the acrobats; most of them were street break dancers, and they could tumble. I worked with one of the younger members and helped him with his flip. I gave him three tips, and everyone could see the difference.

The end, the last day, was really powerful for me. I sat with most of the company members, and we talked about the philosophy of performing. We talked about “How to show up?”

The question elicited great discussion from the troupe which I was floored with. At first, there was standoffishness - we're Americans; they were trained by Russians from the Moscow Circus School.

We had a bit of a hurdle to jump over. Part of the connection we had is that the root of the circus in Turkmenistan and the root of circus in America is the equestrian ring.

Our lineage is all linked. “We are all one family” was a message that resonated with them. It's all part of the same story; this is that wholeness I was talking about at the beginning of our conversation.

When we engage with and connect with our family, with our blood, we become whole again. Being a cultural exchange ambassador was part of the healing process.

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