What do you get when you combine a real-life cringe worthy memory of a daughter telling her Hindu parents she’s performing in the arts and is no longer a virgin?
Storytelling at its finest.
More than 100 students and storytelling enthusiasts gathered at The Clarice Tuesday for Rotis, Tortillas & Wonder Bread: A night of true stories about culture and identity.
Associate professor of performance studies in the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies and Latin American Studies Center’s director Laurie Frederik organized the event in conjunction with her one-credit course, True Storytelling and Culture and Identity.
Frederik’s event hosted six professional storytellers from the award-winning group SpeakeasyDC as a way to introduce her students, the university and Maryland community to the revival of autobiographical, or what Frederick calls, “true” storytelling.
“A lot of people think about storytelling [concerning] either children stories or folk tales, or legends. But there’s an interesting trend that comes in the form of spoken word or slam poetry. It’s this kind of true storytelling,” Frederik said. “It’s a way people can express themselves but also have the experience of public speaking and learning how to perform in an artistic venue.”
Known for bringing their past experiences and memories to stages throughout the local area and D.C., the group shared narratives about coming to terms with adversity and growing up in the United States.
“It’s hard to be black when you’re ethnically ambiguous,” P.J. Andrews, a member of SpeakeasyDC, said. “But it’s not hard to hear ‘What are you?’ or ‘Where are you from?’ a lot.”
For Andrews, a half-Cape Verdean American, half-Jewish man, and like so many biracial or multicultural students, the answer is complicated.
Through his story about the complications of racial ambiguity, Andrews shared the challenges he faced when people viewed him as black, including feeling different from his white friends.
Andrews discussed the feeling not being black enough and how during travels to Africa, he remembered being called “white man.” He is often mistaken for Indian as well, he said.
Slam poetry artist 2Deep had a similar challenge with others acknowledging her multiracial identity.
“I lived all over the world, and so for me, I was always surrounded [by] my black culture and I didn’t know that there was a different opinion about my being black that was different than mine,” 2Deep said.
Until one summer, the half-Puerto Rican, half-Nigerian poet recounted selling encyclopedias in a Minnesota town called Coon Rapids where racism greeted her at most doors. A little boy even referred to her and her friends as “Chocolate People,”asking his mother if he could eat them.
Jorge Silva, a Chicago actor and comedian, joked about his Hispanic background, imitating his mother’s accent, and discussed the assumptions and frustrations he encountered being the “new Mexican kid” in boarding school.
“My name is Jorge. Not George. Not Jorgay. Not Yorg – I’m not Scandinavian,” Silva said.
His light-hearted frustration was met with laughs from the audience.
Silva discussed awkward moments at his school that he said are all too familiar to minorities.
“I remember reading Huckleberry Finn, and the humanities teachers always wanted to get some racial perspective. So they’d ask the black kid about their opinion, and if there was no black kid, they’d go down the mountain spectrum. No black kid? Ask the Hispanic kid. No Hispanic kid? Just find somebody with a decent tan,” Silva said.
Poet Regie Cabico poked fun at his Filipino heritage and his Catholic mother’s obsession with karaoke and initial doubts about his theater pursuits.
However, he also discussed the most serious difficulties with his Asian American heritage within the context of the performing arts.
“I am writing because I was never Asian enough in theater, so I have to write my own scripts,” Cabico said. “Theater is white. There is no room for me.”
Vijai Nathan, the host of the show, also imitated her parents, as a segue to her story about discovering sex in a religious Indian household.
When it came to porn, dating and sex before marriage, Nathan said,according to her mother, “[sex] was only for prostitutes … or white girls.”
“But I couldn’t help it. Somehow I had been born with this Indian girl’s body, but a white girl’s mind,” Nathan said. “From day one, my mom told me that I would never date, that I would get an arranged marriage – that I would be pure and perfect for my wedding night. And I believed this until I went to college.”
In Professor Frederik’s True Storytelling and Culture and Identity course, students explore culture and identity through storytelling. Coaches from SpeakeasyDC provide constructive feedback on their performances and teach them how to effectively engage the audience in their own truths, Frederik said.
The importance of storytelling lies in these everyday experiences, Frederik said.
“I really wanted students and the audience to see how this kind of storytelling about our every day is very pivotal in how we express ourselves.” Frederik said. “It doesn’t have to be a tragedy or a story that has an incredible climax. It can be something that happens on an everyday basis, and this genre of storytelling allows us to see the importance in the every day and how we perform our cultural identities.”
Students in Frederik’s Latin American studies class-funded course will later share their own stories at The Clarice in a student-organized version of Rotis, Tortillas and Wonderbread on May 11.
Brittany Britto is a graduate student and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.