Take your life story, go beyond the comfort of a campfire, fall short of a 12-step program confessional, and spin it like performance art. Then do it on the Black Cat’s back stage, while 75 strangers sit enraptured, listening like children to a favorite bedtime story. You are now entering Speak Easy, a storytelling event that takes D.C.’s gift of gab in the direction New York’s and San Francisco’s have been going ever since Allen Ginsberg first howled. It was, perhaps, the only Black Cat show before which members of both the AARP and the Teletubbies’ target audience co-mingled in the Red Room.
Once upon a time, in 1990, the Washington Storytellers Theatre set up shop to provide workshops, classes, and performance opportunities for professional and aspiring storytellers. Now the group brings us the Speak Easy storytelling series, whose Aug. 25 debut show, Cast-Offs and Hand-Me-Downs, featured five professional storytellers who spoke easily about sensitive, sentimental subjects: being nicknamed “Straw Woman” by her dad; singing “Just the Way You Are” in a powder-blue Chevy Nova; hearing how Mom and Dad met.
And when they’re done, the mike is all yours.
“I helped create this series so that I could hear more stories that resonate with my own life—30-ish D.C. resident, culture-conscious,” says WST Managing Director Robert Revere.
You don’t have to fall into that demographic to identify with the storytellers. Kit Turen, a TV writer and producer, elegantly and emotionally re-created how “Moonlight Serenade” was playing when her parents first met on a train leaving Auschwitz after the camp’s liberation. Turen echoed my own thoughts as she described holding her breath as she listened to her mother weave this painfully beautiful tale: “I was so afraid of breaking the spell of her words.”
The evening’s co-host, Kristin Garrison, with a face like Winona Ryder and heaps more charisma, humorously recounted her seventh-grade idolatry of high school senior Amy Tope, whom she referred to as a “Mack truck of sexual energy.” And trading his own voice for that of a foot-tall, Nerf ball puppet named Ubu, District of Columbia Arts Center Executive Director B. Stanley sounded like Cajun chef Justin Wilson as he told Ubu’s tale of mishaps in the toilet on a bus ride to the big city.
After the five headliners left the stage, co-host Leslie Sapp directed the open-mike portion of the evening, even as one audience member overstayed his welcome.—Amanda Fazzone
The next Speak Easy takes place Sept. 22 at 8:30 p.m. at the Black Cat.