We all have stories. We hold them close, for stories are the most potent form that memory can take. We carry them around with us, carefully polishing and honing them in the telling and re-telling, until they become integral parts of our identity. How many times have you sat recounting a particularly memorable experience around a table with friends, or become exasperated at the old man who tells you for the umpteenth time about “that one time,” unaware that his story has grown stale?
Before the advent of recorded media, storytelling was also how we passed our history down, though now we have largely supplanted traditional storytelling with the sensationalism of Hollywood or the cringe-inducing rubbernecking of reality television.
Still, much as I hate to say it, reality television has it right, in that real life is often more bizarre and fascinating than anything that fiction could hope to produce. Now, if only television producers would stop reveling in human filth and misery, we might actually get to see some interesting stories on the boob-tube.
Still, a story is never more powerful than when it is being told in person by the originator. There is a visceral connection that occurs between a storyteller and their audience when they share community space, something the social media generation is in danger of forgetting.
Luckily, a local nonprofit creative writing program for kids called Desert Island Supply Company (DISCO) is working to re-establish storytelling as an important cultural medium. DISCO, which is located in Birmingham’s Woodlawn neighborhood, recently received a Kresge Arts in Birmingham award and has wasted no time in partnering with Woodlawn High School to produce an ambitious project called Woodlawn Stories.
Chip Brantley, DISCO co-founder, says that this project fits right in with their mission to bring Birmingham students opportunities to write. “By writing, students think about who they are, who they want to be, what matters to them, how their own story will be told,” Brantley says. “While Woodlawn Stories is a not strictly a writing project, DISCO is based in Woodlawn and run by volunteers who, at the most basic level, believe stories and storytelling are important ends in themselves.”
So what is Woodlawn Stories? According to Brantley, it’s a multi-faceted creative endeavor that began when Woodlawn Stories project director Ron Pate, who had experience with narrative-based community development projects, approached DISCO’s Charlotte Donlan with the idea. “Ron had worked on and studied similar projects across the country, including Swamp Gravy, a community stories performance in Colquitt, Georgia,” Brantley says. “Charlotte was instrumental in getting DISCO off the ground, and she’s deeply interested in community development in Woodlawn. Charlotte told me about it, and over a series of conversations, the basic idea for the project took shape.”
The project was broken down into three phases, the first of which involved an army of volunteers armed with video cameras and audio recorders collecting stories from Woodlawn natives. “We really tried to give members of the Woodlawn community—past and present—as many opportunities to tell their stories as possible,” Brantley says, “so in addition to putting out the call for stories with churches, businesses, schools, alumni organizations, libraries and neighborhood associations, we held open storytelling days at some of those same places.”
After the massive gathering of stories was complete, it was time to process them into a usable format. This task fell to five of the Woodlawn Stories organizers—Nancy Rutland Glaub, Tanner Latham, Ron Pate, Katy Smith and Carla Jean Whitley—who met weekly for months to transcribe the recorded material and cobble together a script from the resulting stories. “The stories are not dramatized or fictionalized,” according to Brantley, “so the script is less of a play—there’s no overarching narrative—and more a collage of voices that play off of each other. The idea was to pull these many voices of Woodlawn into one single thread.”
The culmination of all this hard work will occur this weekend at Woodlawn High School when 15 students will perform the work at two free performances. For the past month, Woodlawn Stories Creative Director Olivia McGhaha has been rehearsing with the students, helping them to voice the stories of their neighborhood.
“I’m very excited about the fact that Woodlawn was selected to have this happen,” McGaha says. “I think it’s a wonderful thing for the community, and a wonderful thing for the students at Woodlawn, especially the ones who are involved. I think it’s going to at least stir conversation.”
McGaha also views this project as something that will help bring solidarity to the Woodlawn community. “When people know things about each other, then some of the hang-ups [people have] tend to not be so important once you realize that everybody’s got a story,” she says. “They tend to bring us together.”
I asked Brantley if he had learned anything about the nature of Woodlawn after hearing so many of its stories. “Woodlawn predates Birmingham, and there’s a lot of pride in the community, even among those people who haven’t lived here in a long time,” he says. “Like any community, it’s been through good and bad, and we’ve heard a lot of both. We’ve interviewed everyone from a 21-year-old student who spent time in shelters to an 80-something-year-old stage actress, and I think we’ve all been struck by the timelessness of the stories. At the same time, it’s important to remind ourselves that we interviewed only 60 people out of the I-don’t-know-how-many who are part of the Woodlawn community. We hope this will be a starting point, the foundation for ongoing storytelling in Woodlawn. We’re really thinking of this past year—the 60 stories, the script, the performance—as the foundation for an ongoing storytelling project in Woodlawn. I’m not sure what form that project will take, but it will happen.”
Brantley also found the process a personally rewarding one. “Just the process of sitting across from someone and listening to her stories was its own satisfaction,” he remembers. “I’ve worked for a while in journalism and so was used to interviewing people. This experience felt totally different from that kind of work. First, we usually had no prior knowledge about the person we were listening to, so the questions we could ask had to be general at first. Second, we had the luxury of just listening. We tried to steer the interview toward stories— and away from straight bio—but we weren’t thinking about, for example, how we were going to use this or that quote. We heard some amazing stories, and we heard them often. But we also heard little details that spoke volumes. For example, Bobby Bowden, one of the most successful football coaches of all time and a Woodlawn High School graduate, mentioned that his childhood home was next to the football field and that extra points and field goals would often come soaring into his yard.”
Now that the project is finally reaching its conclusion, Brantley reflects back on the process. “It has brought together a lot of people in the community who might not have connected otherwise,” he says. “Interviewing people and setting up community storytelling days and getting this performance staged: All of it has required back-and-forth between people who care about Woodlawn but who probably wouldn’t have talked otherwise. That’s a good thing.”
The free performances, which will be held in the auditorium of Woodlawn High School on Friday, April 8, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, April 9, at 4 p.m., has been pulled together with help from ASFA, the Corporate Events team at Regions, Urban Cookhouse and Mellow Mushroom. For more info, visit www.desertislandsupplyco.com.
Woodlawn Stories performers: Mia Billingsly, Tyrone Blackmon, Whittni Brackett, Charles Brooks, Sharay Brooks, Torilynn Denney, Aaron Dixon, Markel Marshall, Marvin Marshall, Illyshia Parker, Lauren Parker, Derrel Rhode, Ladarius Smith, Marquis Tucker and LaMetrious Waller.
Sam George is the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.