Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Telling Life: Giving voice to the unvoiced; commissioned pieces

I had the honor of presenting a commissioned work at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University last week, in celebration of Women's History Month. I was hired to prepare and present a lengthy piece on the life and influence of Sojourner Truth. It was a wonderful and challenging experience, well-received, that has me thinking about how storytellers can, should and sometimes should not give voice to the unvoiced.

Before I delve into this, in case you don't know, Sojourner Truth was born in New York state, enslaved, in 1797. She was named Isabella Baumfree. She self-emancipated in her late 20s and began to preach on both salvation and emancipation. In her 40s she renamed herself Sojourner Truth and added women's suffrage to her speeches. She was illiterate but with the help of a friend published her autobiography when she was 50. She continued to speak and preach on emancipation, equality and women's suffrage for the rest of her life. Truth died in her mid 80s, having seen the end of slavery across the nation but not the vote for women or anything resembling equality for black people.

Developing this piece presented some challenges. Among them:
  • I was hired as a storyteller, so I knew I didn't need to present it as a lecture, but I was telling historical fact, I wanted to make sure I got all of the data right. How to merge detailed historical data and immersive story?
  • More importantly, how could I tell the story of an enslaved African-American woman who died over 130 years ago without straying into appropriation? I certainly wasn't go to put on black-face or pretend to speak in her voice. We don't know what she sounded like, her accent or even what she really said. Beyond that, it would be insulting were I to try to imitate her.
  • How could I tell her story with any authenticity when she never wrote a thing down? Everyone who did write something down inevitably filtered it, because her story was written by middle-class, free, white people, all of whom had their own agenda. I, of course, have my own agenda but mostly I want to make sure she is heard and not forgotten. 
  • Last but not least, I wanted to make sure I was giving my client what they needed. How to do that?
These were not the only challenges I faced when putting this together, but they were certainly the most compelling. What follows are some thoughts and the solutions I enacted.

Giving voice to the voiceless. 
As a storyteller, part of my job is to give voice to the voiceless. I love telling fairy-tales from unexpected points of view, so the overlooked characters have a chance to speak. I enjoy playing devil's advocate and giving the villain voice. I view it all as a part of my work in the world, allowing my listeners a chance to consider another point of view. Storytellers can be especially subversive with this aspect of our work, since oral storytelling is such an effective way to build empathy. This is part of why I was (and am!) so excited about this piece. I knew that this was an unparalleled chance to talk about issues we still confront and to help ensure that someone amazing is not forgotten.

Data and narrative.
I need to work on this more, but what I kept reminding myself of is this: I am a storyteller. I am hired to help people connect emotionally with each other, with themselves and with a narrative. While I need to avoid factual errors, I don't need to turn the story into a recitation of dates and data points. By humanizing the data and events I make it more relatable and, frankly, easier to tell. I can tell it as a series of human experiences, not newspaper articles.

Truthfully, I'm still working on this aspect of the story. I had notes so I wouldn't make mistakes on the dates. In future tellings I intend to minimize the number of dates I refer to and instead talk about it as stages in a life with historical context thus eliminating the need for notes.

Working with my client.
This was the easiest of problems to solve. I made sure we each understood what we were getting and why. I asked about their goals and hopes for the piece. I listened. I did the best I could and tried to give them more than they were asking for, as I do with all of my clients.

Authentic voice and appropriation.
Sometimes storytellers, in pursuit of authenticity, try to give literal voice to the unvoiced. They use accents or other tools to bring someone to life. I do not do that, though this is a discussion for another day. I've written about it briefly here. If I can't do an accent perfectly then I being more insulting by trying. How many times has a white person played a Native American in a film and used a generic "Indian" voice?

For one, I am a short, white, middle-class, 21st century woman who has always had the right to vote, not a tall, African-American, born into slavery, 19th century woman who was arrested when she tried to vote. I could not be her. It would be arrogant and inappropriate for me to try.

For another, we don't know what she actually sounded like. We know her first language was Low Dutch and that she learned English in her early teens. Most of the people who wrote down her words added Southern U.S. phrasing and cadence to them, because by the mid-19th century slavery was considered more of a Southern phenomenon even though people were enslaved in the north into at least the 1820s. In her lifetime Sojourner Truth's actual voice was altered by her reporters to serve their own purposes. Truth was aware of this and of the power it conveyed, so she didn't object as far as we know, but we don't know for sure.

If I'm not going to speak in her voice AND I want to build empathy and connection with my audience, avoiding giving a lecture, what could I do? I solved the problem with a variety of methods.
  1. I acknowledged this issue at the outset of the story.
  2. I used rich imagery to bring the audience back to her time, so they felt present in another place.
  3. I created a fictional amalgam who did speak in first person. This white, middle-class woman knew Truth when she was young. She spoke to her experience with Truth. Yes, it could be argued (and some of you will want to do this because you're annoyed at my stance on appropriation to begin with) that I am not an 18th century woman and I did not know Truth, so how can I speak in her voice? I was willing to go this far. It is a personal choice and one I felt I could do with authenticity, integrity and without insulting Truth or the experience of the enslaved and unvoiced.
  4. At the end of the performance I reminded the audience that we don't know what Truth actually sounded like, but that she was a woman of great savvy. She had likely heard many of the pieces written about her and those written theoretically in her voice, so I concluded with a reading of her best-known speech. I did not try to sound like an aging African-American woman, nor did I try to change the language as it was written. I presented it as the closest approximation of her voice that we have, and that I wanted her to have the last word.
None of these were easy choices to make and I'm certain I will keep modifying the program, but it has been a fantastic experience, one that made me work and think hard, as well as question some of my beliefs about how professional storytellers give voice. I am grateful for the opportunity and look forward to performing it again.

I'd love to know how you work with these kinds of issues. What lines do you draw? How do you deal with things that might be taken for appropriation? How do you give voice?

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for taking us through all the steps you followed to create the story that you told. I faced a similar dilemma in wanting to tell the story of Sarah Josepha Hale, because she expressed her disapproval of women speaking in public. How could I stand up as Sarah, and have her speak before an audience about her own life? The answer came to me after "sleeping on it" and i decided to portray a 19th century woman who "wrote an essay" about Sarah Hale & presented it before her own literary club. Because my husband's ancestors had lived in Arlington, MA during the time that Mrs. Hale was editing Ladies' Magazine and later, Godey's Lady's Book from Boston, I felt comfortable in taking on the role of one of them and assuming that she knew of Mrs. Hale and (my invention) might have admired her work. So I tell Sarah Hale's story in the third-person while giving a first-person portrayal a contemporary of hers. I'm delighted to read that you have come to a similar solution to your storytelling project. I call mine "A Tribute to Sarah Josepha Hale" and although it takes some explanation, my audiences have accepted the story within the story. :)

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  2. I don't mean to be anonymous! It was the only choice that fit. I take a further step back when I present factual material. For example, I read somewhere that Stephen Hawking has said that there is possibly a math equation that would prove the existence of God. (that's not quite what he said, but that's how it boils down) And it bothered me that I can never know if he's correct if he managed to do that, because I can't check his math. I have to trust him, like I would have to trust a pastor or a Pope. So I did it through the eyes of his second ex wife, a woman who certainly has learned not to trust him. She is a real person, and a kind of horrible person, so I had to play her and defend her (horrible) choices. It turned out to be a great piece about love and marriage and God and trust. I worked with a physicist to do it. Here is the finishing product:
    https://vimeo.com/7855726

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True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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