By ALIA STEARNS
The power of stories is undeniable. Every time period has had a popular form of storytelling at least from the time of Cro-Magnon man, his hands filthy with iron oxide and black manganese after smearing mineral pigments along cave walls to communicate a message, or sitting with his tribe, their faces illuminated by firelight as they traded information.
One night last month at The Old Church Concert Hall, Portland Story Theater’s Urban Tellers series hosted its third installment featuring immigrant and refugee storytellers. (A fourth installment is scheduled for fall 2018.) The evening was powerful and no doubt reshaped how some of the people in the audience view people who fall into those categories.
And for some, it might have been surprising. Popular media often frame immigrants and refugees through a generalized trope fraught with heartbreak, loneliness, and rejection. But at The Old Church, that wasn’t the case at all. “It’s just like a regular Urban Tellers show,” Portland Story Theater co-founder Lynne Duddy notes, “except the people happen to be self-identified as first-generation immigrant or refugee.”
This is an important distinction for Duddy and her partner, Lawrence Howard, because their intent with these evenings is not to reduce their storytellers to a theme or to define them solely by that aspect of their life, but to help them tell their stories. Storytellers work with one another under the guidance of Duddy and Howard to identify a story and develop it into something they can deliver for an audience. Each person involved gives feedback and asks questions of the storytellers, helping them to create a scaffold that will allow them to construct the narrative onstage. It’s less the delivery of a memorized monologue and more the semi-improvised execution of a plan.
A few hundred people excitedly filled the pews at the downtown concert hall and awaited this execution as the house band, Tonight’s Special, worked through some jazz standards. By the time “All of Me” was slowing to a close, the pre-show excitement was peaking. Duddy and Howard took to the stage to welcome the audience, and applause erupted, replacing all the pre-show chatter.
People were fervent: Given the location, it felt almost like religious ecstasy. And there truly is something spiritual about an evening of storytelling. Sure, it’s entertaining. Always. But, as Howard notes, “It also has to be profound and meaningful and transformative.” Addressing the program’s focus on refugees and immigrants, the founders spoke to the audience about the present political climate and the overwhelming pattern of “othering” people not born in the United States. One goal of an evening with these storytellers was to combat such attitudes by highlighting the ways we are all similar rather than different.
The evening opened with Enrique Andrade’s story “Pinky Promise,” which begins in Mexico City in 1985, the year that his family made the decision to immigrate to the United States. Standing on stage, Andrade was exceedingly dapper. His sonorous voice and natty suit made him feel like a butler who is more cultured and intelligent than his employer, or a librarian who solves crimes. In the context of the evening, this made his smooth transitions into his 13-year-old self or a brittle, handicapped INS agent all the more miraculous.
Andrade’s message for optimism in the face of the political climate was highlighted by his step-mother Eileen’s reminder to him that “This too shall pass.” Jiao Liu took the concept of motherly guidance and dug into it with her story “Secret Heart’s Desire.” She opened by playing the erhu, a traditional Chinese two-string fiddle, and when she finished playing her tune she immediately declared she hated playing the instrument. But she learned it because her mother insisted, just as her mother diverted her from dance classes. When Liu came to America to attend college she rebelliously took a dance class, and she was terrible. In her tale, Liu explored her mother’s intentions, ultimately deciding for herself that she deserved to both succeed and fail in life.
Next to take the stage was Preethi Srinivas, whose “Pretty Young Thing” was an exploration of her native India’s preference for fair skin over dark skin and the effect that had upon her perception of herself. As a child, she overheard two women at a party discussing how unfortunate it was that she was so dark. That defined her from that moment, until she immigrated and began being complimented for the skin that had served as a marker of shame. She didn’t sum things up by concluding that her departure from her mother country had freed her. She left room for the possibility that she had grown more confident, giving her ownership of her beauty evolution.
After intermission the audience was taken back to China and a mother’s guiding hand with Qin Xia’s “Shut Up and Cry.” As a six-year-old, Xia was crying inconsolably when her mother told her, “Shut up. Don’t cry. Only weaklings cry.” It shaped their entire relationship, keeping topics hopeful and happy and avoiding weak tears. However, while in college, Xia received a phone call from her mother, who expressed concern that her daughter wasn’t married or having children yet. Then her mother burst into tears. And that moment caused Xia to re-evaluate her relationship with the emotions that had been cast as shameful.
Ethiopian native Nyimoch Chuol Wel’s “Crossing the Forbidden Line” was the story most closely tied to the refugee experience, as it was the tale of traveling with her mother and her sisters through the forest to a refugee camp. It was also a story about an undeserved beating at the hands of her uncle, and its impact on her desire to break free from her native culture by having an equal voice to men and choosing a man she loved with whom to have a child. For her, that meant coming to America and severing ties with many of her relatives. It also meant having a beautiful daughter on her own terms.
To close the evening, Bernal Cruz-Munoz, from Guatemala, told “Love That Name,” the story of his second son’s namesake, a handsome, fashionable Iraqi priest, whose presence made Cruz-Munoz cry nearly every time they spoke. On a larger scale, the story was about spirituality in the narrator’s life and how this priest’s presence was so profound that giving his son the man’s name was an act of love. As the story drew to an end, tears welled for both speaker and audience.
Each story had its own impact, and they combined to create something even more potent. “Each person is creating their own story,” Howard says, “but together they create the show. And we find that somehow –– miraculously really, organically –– a theme emerges.”
On this evening, parenthood was both a literal element of every story and a poignant metaphor, as native cultures are not unlike parents. They shape and sustain us, but as we grow, we must evaluate the form we have taken under their care and determine to what degree we choose to maintain it. It is in blending that original set of values and traditions with the ones we develop later that we become who we are. These complex, revealing narratives highlight not only where the tellers came from but also why they are such a vital addition to our evolving community.
- All of the performances discussed above can be viewed at Portland Story Theater’s YouTube account. You can also listen to interviews with these storytellers on Urban Tellers Backstory Podcast.
- Urban Tellers’ season finale show will be June 1 at The Old Church Concert Hall.
- Two stories from the Urban Tellers immigrant and refugee series –– Yashar Vasef’s “In Between Two Worlds” and Eva Rotter-Johnson’s “Immigrants in Parallel” –– will be included in the exhibition Migration Stories, June 1-July 2 at the Multnomah Arts Center.
- Want to participate in the fall Urban Tellers refugee and immigrant project? Information here.