A Community Full of Storytellers

by B.E. Melendez
from the School of Theatre & Dance of The University of South Florida in Tampa, FL
Volume VIII. August-September 2013

How to address the community engagement aspect of developing “the road weeps, the well runs dry” presented a challenge for the play’s director, Professor Fanni Green. She came up with an idea that would include people beyond the University of South Florida campus community and reached out to the community at large.

First two, then four possibilities – a senior center, a boys’ summer camp program, a veterans’ theater troupe and a group of community radio listeners – turned into enthusiastically received realities, much to her – pleasant – surprise.

 What I thought would be a difficult venture, turned out to be a summer filled with stories about aging, first love, favorite aunts, catching raccoons, wanting to be a famous scientist-football player and going to a baseball game with dad.”

Each Workshop group had its own focus for its stories. A group of nine participants signed on at the University Village Senior Living Community. They were instructed to tell a story about a person or an event in their lives that they have never forgotten. There were 14 young storytellers at Caleb’s Motivational Camp for Boys who had the take of telling a story about what they will be doing in their lives 10 years from now and what it would take for them to achieve their goals.

The listener-supported radio station, WMNF, held a workshop that attracted 15 participants.  They told their stories about growing up in, or moving to, and/or living in the Tampa Bay area.  And finally, the James A. Haley Veteran’s Hospital’s ‘Voices of Recovery’ Drama Group focused on an event from their lives before joining the armed services and connected it to a recurring theme from their present daily lives.

“I was surprised that each group wanted to continue to meet. The WMNF group wanted to form a storytelling group and meet monthly.  This was beyond what I imagined,” Green said. “I witnessed the workshop participants create community amongst themselves. To my further surprise, I began to see a common thread run through all of the stories from the groups – identity. The stories echoed the major themes from the play – identity, migration, love, history, family.”

As with all stories, some continue to resonate after the telling, and Green found that to be the case.

“Three stories stay with me. One from a 93-year-old woman in the retirement village: she titled it, “Tom Mix and Chicken Sh**t” of all things.  It was about how when she was eight years old, she had to earn the money for her and her five year-old sister to go see the new Tom Mix movie at the cinema. Another story titled, “How I learned to be a Racist,” was told by a white man from the WMNF workshop. In it he explained how his parents and grandparents taught him from which fountain to drink, that he was better than the Negro yardman, which was why the yard yardman man had to address him as ‘Mister” although he was a boy and the yardman was a grown man.

“The third story was told by one of the veterans. It went into the best times he had with his distant, hard, father. It outlined the day his father took him to a baseball game; how happy he was to be with his father, to see his father so alive and open. How the day was spoiled because he and his father were the only “coloreds” at the game and they were called names.”

Remember, Write and Tell: Interweaving the Person and the Community through Storytelling and Song

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