Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary People
Jennifer Munro, who grew up in public housing in the 1950s, tells a story about her mom, with four small children all in cloth diapers, doing the laundry.
“She was doing the laundry in what was called a dolly tub,” she says, which was another name for a tall, round wash tub. “She would have to heat the water, pour it in. And then she had what’s called a podger,” a club-like device with a long handle that was used to pound the clothes clean in the dolly tub.
“I mean, it was a step up from going down to where the river flows between the two boulders,” she says.
After the wash was done and dried, it was time to iron the clothes with a flat iron heated up on the stove.
By the 1970s, washing machines became more common, even in households with modest means.
“The washing machine. Yeah. You know, when my mother got a washing machine, I think she broke down and wept,” Munro says.
Women and women’s work, both in the home and in the world at large, and the balancing acts required to navigate and execute both successfully, are central elements of a series events, Women Tell: Our Stories Through the Decades, that Munro, who lives in Madison, is co-producing with her friend, Denise Keyes Page, also of Madison. The first event included storytellers from all over the country, and an audience that filled every available seat.
The next event in the Women Tell series is coming up on Sunday, June 5 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the East River Reading Room, 151 Boston Post Road, Madison. Auditions for that show are now being accepted, through Friday, May 13.
Page, of Ubunto Storytellers, also is hosting a spring shoreline series of story concerts featuring The Ubunto Storytellers and “true stories of the journey of Black and brown people in America,” with six events planned starting Tuesday, May 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Scranton Memorial Library, 801 Boston Post Road, Madison. Other events are planned at the Henry Carter Hull Library in Clinton, and the Westbrook Library.
The first in the series will focus on the topic “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” and the second in the series will take as its central theme a Yoruba word, “Ase,” which means “so it shall be,” and stories relating to “Our Ancestors, Our Selves.”
The stories being told vary greatly, spanning more than a hundred years and several countries, but the power of each individual story is enhanced by the company of the other stories in a way, says Page, that made this conclusion almost inevitable: “We have to tell these stories side by side.”
At the East River Reading Room on a Sunday evening in late April, Keyes and Munro held the first in the series of Women Tell storytelling events.
Storytellers included both Keyes, who drew upon her background as a multi-generational native New Englander for her poignant story about how her mother drew upon her memories of a loving family to sustain her through tragedy, and Munro, who told a funny and sometimes shocking story about her indomitable and wise Aunt Lily.
The other storytellers hailed from all over the country, with two of them telling their story remotely via video on a large screen over the stage, and they included Connie Rockman, Vicki Juditz, Alicia Retes, Wendy Farans, and Carol Birch. These women, who have been telling stories to audiences for decades, included award winning storytellers and some have performed with the Festival of Arts and Ideas and the Moth Radio Hour to national audiences. Several are members of or officials with the New London-based Connecticut Storytelling Center, which is holding a festival and conference from Thursday, April 28 through Saturday, April 30 (www.connstorycenter.org/festival.htm), at which Munro will be one of the featured performers and speakers.
Keyes and Munro are now welcoming anyone to audition for the second event in June that will be both live-streamed and live from the East River Reading Room.
“The story you tell must feature a woman/women to whom you have a personal connection and whose life experience occurred in either decade or was shaped by it,” says the request for auditions. Video auditions are being accepted from storytellers anywhere and those who do not live in Connecticut, if they are selected, can live stream their performance to the audiences in Madison.
They are seeking personal narratives about everyday women from the 1950s and 1970s because, “we believe everyday women deserve to be celebrated and immortalized,” says Keyes.
Storytellers who have a story about a woman from another decade are welcome to send a video in, and it could be featured at another event. Audition videos should be sent to Keyes at email@example.com or Munro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Serendipitous Connection
Keyes and Munro began their collaboration shortly after Keyes made a serendipitous connection at a storytelling event that made her realize that women’s stories from the 1920s would provide rich material for such an event. She got in touch with Munro, whom she knew both from Munro’s reputation as one of the premiere storytellers in country and as someone who, like Keyes, gives workshops and does training for storytellers. When Keyes pitched the idea of the event, Munro “said ‘Yes’ with no hesitation,” Keyes said.
They created Black and Silver Productions to launch the series and months of hard work followed, with tasks that included everything from securing storytellers and rehearsing the stories to recruiting Munro’s husband to produce posters and programs. Keyes and Munro put out a request for auditions to storytellers from the Connecticut Storytelling Center, their national storytelling networks, and the Institute Library in New Haven, which has become a hub for storytellers along the shoreline.
“We ask for submissions to be oral and recorded because it could be written, and written beautifully, but that doesn’t always translate to storytelling,” Keyes says.
As for the first decades they picked as a focus, the 1920s and then the 1950s and the 1970s, Munro says, “we know that there are not only impressive historic personages from these decades, they there are also extraordinary ordinary women who are not ordinary at all…We wanted to give voice to those stories before they forever fell by the wayside. They deserve their day in the sun.”
“We think of it as living herstory,” Keyes adds. “We are not looking for figures from history. Most women were heroes in their own homes, when you think of the challenges back then.”
Munro says some of these stories might be handed down from older relatives, some of whom might be losing their ability to tell stories because they are aging or beset by dementia. She says it’s an urgent matter to listen to and preserve those stories.
“We have a tendency to dismiss older people and particularly older women,” she says. “And older men get similar treatment. But they all have powerful stories...To me, what I hope our audiences will discover, is the amazing breadth and depth of ordinary human experience.”
While Keyes and Munro have honed their storytelling skills over decades, they say even those who are new to storytelling might want to consider doing it before an audience.
Munro says being able to tell a story in front of an audience allows people to discover how to express themselves with confidence and without the use of common verbal crutches such as the overuse of the word “like,” one of her pet peeves, to get from one idea to another. That is the kind of thing that can be ferreted out and addressed while working with professional storytellers like Munro and Keyes.
“When I listen to young people, sometimes they are accomplished, maybe a great athlete, maybe they’ve even competed at the Olympic level, and so many are incapable of expressing themselves with confidence,” Munro says. “And Matthew Dicks [an accomplished internationally renowned storyteller who is based in the Hartford area] says it’s good for your love life. If you can tell a story and make your partner laugh, you are ahead of the game. And communication skills are a plus in any business or venture.”
Keyes says that a focus on storytelling “forces one to really go down and excavate the little nuggets of things that were rumbling around. Sometimes we may not have even known they were rumbling around, but when we go to develop a story, we find ourselves mining those pieces. And mining those pieces have helped me develop as a person, revalue again what my talents and skills are, and they have strengthened the relationships I have.”
Sharing a personal story, whether to a friend or on a stage, after all, is a way of connecting on a deep, intimate level, she says.
She is proud that her grandchildren will know their grandparents and great grandparents, through her tellings. “Storytelling is a way to preserve that.”
Learning to Tell, and Listen
Keyes started Ubuntu Storytellers as a way to help address racial unrest and social inequity. Prior to that she had been a facilitator in the field of social equity, but once she took to the stage with a microphone in hand, she decided it was important to build a troupe of Black and brown storytellers, of people who had stories that otherwise might be overlooked or lost to history.
“I want to de-museumfy these stories,” she says. “We have tropes, and some of them are true, such as that this can be a dangerous world for young Black men. But it’s also important to tell their stories of them learning to cook and teasing their sisters. And those stories somehow don’t make it to the mainstream.”
Keyes says, in particular, the stories of Black and brown people who have middle class lives, along with all of the advantages and frustrations of such a life, often are overlooked.
“I was raised middle class,” she says. “And somehow that always shocks people. They say, ‘How did you get here?’ And I say, ‘I live in that great big house up the street there.’”
Likewise, Munro says her stories of being raised in the projects sometimes surprise people as well.
Ultimately, these stories from different backgrounds and different experiences inform one another.
“Our energies and our spiritual journeys are all intertwined,” says Keyes.
She says she, like many of us, has ugly moments where she judges others, sometimes without understanding, or maybe even rejecting, their story. But then she reminds herself of the idea of ubuntu, which means “I am because we are,” a concept that fosters greater understanding and compassion for all of us and how we are inevitably connected.
Keyes says it’s imperative that we not only learn to share our stories, but that we also remember how to listen to the stories of others, and particularly stories of those who we see as “others.”
“If you only do this one thing today, I will have considered the day worthwhile,” she says. “Take one thing that sounds totally foreign to you and take that one thing, for a moment, even if it sounds crazy, and for a moment, say, ‘I’m going to treat that as true.’ Don’t throw away your belief systems or values. But what if you considered, just considered, things that were foreign to you? I am because we are. My parents taught me that. Consider sometimes the totally opposite of what you believe. Ask yourself, what if, if you were forced to believe that, what would your life experience be?”
Transcending Physical Limitations
Keyes and Munro say there are plenty of resources right here in Connecticut for those who want to hone their storytelling and story listening skills, including the Connecticut Storytelling Center, and the Institute Library. You can find out more about Keyes at ubuntustorytellers.com and more about Munro at jennifermunro.net. Keyes and Munro also have a storytelling group that is now meeting virtually, mainly because virtual meetings are convenient, of accomplished storytellers and writers.
While many stories are preserved between the covers of books, they says oral storytelling has a magic all its own, one they believe transcends the physical limitations of books.
“The book is a physical barrier,” Munro says, while oral storytelling is “direct. It’s the most direct form of communication. I know this probably sounds far-fetched, but when I’m telling a story, I’m seeing the images in my head. All I’m doing is describing what I’m seeing as it unfolds in my head. The image is very clear to me. And one way of thinking about it is that the audience hears those words and recreates the images in their heads. They are seeing the same image. And that is such a powerful connection between and among this community of people. You see their faces go slack. Because in a way they have left their physical body and they are in the realm of imagination and it’s very restful. I think some people have forgotten how wonderful it is for someone to tell a story and to tell it well using beautiful language.”
Keyes says she loves the challenge of recreating a world, up on stage, microphone in hand, with nothing more than her words.
“There are no props. Just you, your body, and the audience and the energy of the two of you,” she says. “That is how it resonates with me.”
Keyes wants everyone to be exposed to the artform of oral storytelling.
“Come once, just try it,” she says.
“I think once people hear stories told well, they will fall in love with the art of it. And it is an art,” says Munro.