One wants a teller in a time like this
One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.
- “One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This” by Gwendolyn Brooks
Each year, a handful of themes arise out of our ArtPlace Summit–usually they’re the topics around which our dinner conversations revolve, the discussions that seem to find their way into every plenary conversation and breakout session. Last year, we spent a lot of time talking about the importance of storytelling as a mechanism for social change. But it wasn’t until a plenary on the second day of the summit titled “One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This,” that we were able to actually experience the power of storytelling together.
Inspired by a Gwendolyn Brooks poem of the same name, the plenary was led by Elizabeth Alexander, poet and recently appointed President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The plenary–part poetry reading, part theatrical performance–focused on the tremendous power artist’s voices can have when they’re given a platform and an audience. To demonstrate that, we listened to a poetry reading from Elizabeth followed by an excerpt from Ping Chong + Company’s documentary theater production “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity.”
“In this moment, in this place, why is it that we need artists and why is it that we need artist’s voices more than ever before?” Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America, asked in his introduction to the plenary. “We need to sing as a choir and we need to pay attention to whose voices are not there. People have voices, but there’s some of us in power who can’t always hear them,” he said. “We don’t need to problematize the voices. We need to fix the ears.”
What better way to demonstrate this point than to take time during the summit specifically to listen to our artists?
Our summit attendees were already familiar with Elizabeth Alexander thanks to our discussion of her poem “Praise Song For the Day,” a piece which was written for and read during the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. But during this plenary, attendees got to hear from Elizabeth herself as she told her own story through two spoken word poems.
The first poem (which is also featured in How Lovely the Ruins: Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times) grappled with the uncompromising importance of sharing one’s stories:
Human beings have never lived without song,
Across time and tribe,
So poetry has always been necessary and people have always made it and shared it and, in some way, lived by it.
When language is degraded from the highest perches
And public words regularly carry meaning that reduce groups to crude and false stereotypes,
The nuance and precision of poems is an ever more necessary tool for living.
Elizabeth went on to describe the impact poetry and storytelling have had on her life before delving into an even more intimate piece which dealt with the struggles her husband endured as a refugee and as an immigrant in America. She reminded us that our stories can be our best defense against adversity.
The idea that our stories can become versatile tools for social and individual healing was echoed in the plenary’s second performance: an excerpt from Ping Chong + Company’s “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity.” Performed by four young New Yorkers of varying cultural backgrounds and reflecting a wide range of Muslim identities, “Beyond Sacred” is an interview-based theater production that combines the true stories of its performers to create a collective narrative.
Performers Tiffany Yasmin Abdelghani, Ferdous Dehqan, Kadin Herring, and Amir Khafagy gave attendees a glimpse into their lives, each sharing memories connected to their experiences of being young and Muslim in post-9/11 America.
“After 9/11, all of a sudden everyone wants to know where I am from,” Tiffany said. “No one asked me that before. I’ve always felt American, but now I feel like I need to act more American.”
“At my masjid, we discuss how we’re being treated,” Kadin told us. “My imam says, ‘Put your best foot forward. Don’t give them a reason to judge you. Show them that Muslim does not equal terrorist.’ It’s like it’s our job to make people feel like we are safe Muslims. Assimilated. It’s like we need to be the Oreos of Muslims.”
The performance is part of Ping Chong + Company’s series of documentary theater productions known as the “Undesirable Elements” series. Since 1992, over 50 different plays have been produced within the series. Thanks in part to a resurgence in islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments in America, “Beyond Sacred” has drawn tremendous interest. According to Sarah Katz, one of the play’s writers, the production has been performed in six states for over 10,000 people.
“I see this as an act of political activism,” Ferdous said when asked about his participation in the play. “We’re basically humanizing Muslims and Muslim identity because Muslim identity has become a scapegoat of American society.”
We need tellers in a time like this. We need to listen to our storytellers because they are the ones capable of distilling our collective experience into a narrative that can be thoughtfully examined, listened to, and responsibly reacted to. We hope that attendees of this year’s summit came away from this plenary session with a deeper sense of the rich potential storytelling, poetry and theater can have within the cultural conversation.
Kayla Goggin is a freelance writer working for ArtPlace America. She can be reached at gogginkayla [at] yahoo.com.
Watch a "Beyond the Sacred" excerpt performed at the 2017 ArtPlace Summit.