Photo by Debra Lopez
I love coaching creatives writing their first memoirs. The journey is full of amazing memories, perspective & the celebration of the life you’ve created.
My client, actor/writer, Susan Heyward (The Boys, Delilah, OITNB) and I have been working together for the last year & I’m super excited to share some of her brilliant work:I love coaching creatives writing their first memoirs. The journey is full of amazing memories, perspective & the celebration of the life you’ve created.
My client, actor/writer, Susan Heyward (The Boys, Delilah, OITNB) and I have been working together for the last year & I’m super excited to share some of her brilliant work:
Permission to be a storyteller Part I
by Susan Heyward
There was me and about
20 other kids.
Ages, 13 to 17.
Sitting on the floor of a drama class, all of us drunk on our own melanin and hormones.
I was one of the 14 year olds.
And the teacher, her headwrap tight and her statement earrings in the silhouette of Neferttiti dancing said,
“Okay. What I want you to do is look at this empty room.
And someone, imagine where it could be.
Can be anywhere.
And I don't want you to tell us, but I want you, one of you, to get up and start behaving.
In that place.
Anyone who's watching, when you figure out where they are, you get up and you add your behavior to it.”
She and a couple other teachers sat and waited, expectant and sphinx-like.
As the Nefertittis settled down, we teens all kind of sat there looking at each other thinking. Aight. Where ya'll want to go?
And one kid got up, a guy, one of the older kids.
He stood in the middle of the room and he squeezed his hands in two fists. He held them with his elbows bent at 90 degrees in front of himself, shoulder length apart, thumb to pinky, as if he were holding a police baton. He leaned back, swung his arms to one side as if the “stick” was heavy, then swung them towards the ceiling before bringing them down to the floor.
Then he did it again. Boom. Again. Boom. Again he arched up and then down to the floor. I realized there’s nothing there, he’s not holding anything. This is pretend. I don't actually hear a boom. I don’t actually hear a thud. But the rhythm he created landed on my body just the same. Boom.
I watched and tried to understand.
“ Ohhhh...it’s not a baton, they aren’t that heavy…he's, like, in a garden somewhere, like, working on...oh, the land!”
And so other people got up and started ‘working the land’ with him.
I thought, ‘Cool,they saw the same thing I saw.’
And then another kid got up and pretended to crack a whip.
And started to bark orders.
And suddenly we weren't just in a field.
We were on a plantation.
As soon as the whole class agreed that we were on a plantation, a bunch of my classmates rushed up to join and added to the world being built.
One of us pretended to be on a tractor.
One of us pretended to be feeding dogs, one of us pretended to be turning cotton into thread. Spinning. Spinning cotton into thread.
I was still on the side of the room, watching. I looked and I looked and I asked myself,
“Okay, how can I add to this world without repeating?”
I don't want to just do what everyone's doing.
Something inside me pushed me up. Before I really knew what I was doing. I was walking gingerly up to one classmate, my hands heavy at my side, my back bent over and in a voice unlike my own, drawled,
“Want some watah?”
And the way they looked at me. We'd stopped
Pretending. We were just living.
My classmates. A bunch of city kids at summer camp, they looked different to me. They looked at me with gratitude and surprise.
I gave water.
More water. A moment between each laborer and I.
Together, we slipped into this world.
This improv lasted for 20 minutes..
And it was incredible, the imagination and freedom and sense of ensemble we built.
Whoever decided to cast themselves as the slave master went full in, grabbed one of the girls who was in the field and walked over to a corner with her. We heard the sounds of a master taking liberties, the kind that helped my great great aunts move west and never to be seen by our black asses again.
( I should really track down that student and see how she's doing. How both of them are doing. I remember the teachers at the corners of the room coaching us, but I’m not 100%. All I remember is I felt safe enough to play the scenario, but I can’t speak for everyone. This would probably never fly in a classroom today, but I’d be lying if I said it felt anything other than natural and free and creative.)
The whole thing took on a life of its own. A momentum.
We all pretended to pick her up afterwards and put her back together. And she said,
“I've had it, I'm leaving, we're not doing this no mo! I’m runnin’!”
And then we were cooking with gas!
One of the guys piped up that he was her husband. She couldn't leave without him and we improved “yes!” and went with it.
Okay, who else is leaving?
Oh snap! There's a whole group who decided to go.
“I'm not going.”
The words came out of my mouth smooth as a curtain rising at the top of a favorite burlesque act. From a place inside me that felt like home, I knew we needed conflict. So, right then and there, I decided, the water girl had to stay.
I also decided (gasp!) master’s victim was my sister! So, I had to at least help her leave! Oh, and leave with her husband!
All these creative decisions, the freedom! Just firing off like firecrackers. Better than any drug. (At least I imagine. I’m from the D.A.R.E generation, drugs scared the shit out of me so bad that cussing and theater were my addictions. Still trying to shake ‘em both.)
My‘brother-in-NOT-law-cause-we-was-playing-slaves-and-marriage-wasn’t-legal-for-the-likes-of-us’ plotted the whole escape, with a bunch of us huddled around him. The person pretending to be the slave master; I think heard us but knew that it wouldn't help the story if he ‘found out.’ So, he improved other things to do. Kept himself busy. Listened to the teachers coaching from the sidelines.
Then came the moment of parting, the moment, when we as an ensemble acted out the group escape. I felt such an upswell of emotion; sadness, and grief, and hope and joy. Literally, these people were going five or six feet across the room and pretending to go towards freedom, but we all believed it and our bodies acted as if it was the real thing.
And as they tip-toed away, we wept, whispering our goodbyes.
“You betta take care of my sister.”
Yeah, that was me. The drama! I gave you drama, honey!
Those of us who decided not to escape settled back into plantation life.
And this thing had happened.
And we all knew it was special.
The teacher, after a few moments of stillness, really quietly said,
“Okay, now you can all let that go.”
We must have sat there in silence for two minutes.
I don't know what you call it. Orishas. Apollo.
We'd been visited by something.
And we told a story. A story, honey.
And our teacher asked
“Everybody remember what they did?”
As if we could forget. We all nodded.
And the teacher said,
“Okay. We're going to present this improv at the Parents, Family and Friends Sharing at the end of the summer.”
I don't think I said anything out loud, but I remember feeling a flush of exhilaration and pride. And confidence; I knew whatever we found in that moment, we could do it again and we could share.
And we did.
I don’t remember rehearsing it again fully, but we had lots of staging rehearsals. We had sessions on blocking our positions on stage for each major moment, figured out our costumes and knew where the lights would be. The job was to let go, listen to each other, and tell the story again, this time to the folks who knew and loved us best.
When we performed that improv for our family and friends night, the same inexplicable magic, intangible thing lifted all of us together. We worked as an ensemble, we told the story, our people’s story and I'll never forget the moment. When the group of escapees left the stage to ‘escape’ I felt the same upswell of emotion; grief. Joy. Hope. Faith. Love. As I watched these kids carry the spirits of the escaped slaves with them through an auditorium of audience members in North Philadelphia, I could feel the audience's eyes on them, holding all this hope and watching them go. Watching me watch them go.
I felt that there wasn't anything I could do wrong.
Or any way I could mess up.
April Yvette Thompson