Sometimes, reviews end up as an equal amount of the thing itself and the person reviewing it. This will be one of those, so let me tell you a little about me. I’ve been coming to Story Week since 2009, volunteering since 2010. While I’ve missed a few of the 2nd Story events, I can safely say they are the most consistently awesome thing Story Week has to offer. In last year's review, I said it was the best Story Week reading ever, and this year blew last one out of the water (no offense to last year's readers). Panels can be hit or miss (let’s not even mention Q and As on grounds of compassionate restraint), authors can be oddly laconic or frosty, and while Lit Rock N’Roll is definitely a good time, sometimes there are too many Virginia Woolfs (cocktail, not lady) and thick Scottish accents for the casual drunk dancer/writer to get a ton out of it.
So I really really like the 2nd Story show. Their shtick is to have someone get up there and tell such an amazing part of themselves that the audience is then inspired to turn to each other and say, “oh yes, I was arrested for having an overdue registration that one time…” I’ve also reviewed a non-Story Week production of theirs, and generally there's at least one strong piece (most times all four are great), a lot of laughs, a few gasps, and maybe some tears. But last night at Martyrs, all four stories hit notes of joy and sorrow in an unprecedented way. Even the pre-show business: dedicating the week to the beloved and sadly departed Columbia College professor Arnie Raiff, and passing out Ragdale fellowships to Cat Jimenez and Patricia McNair, reflected the tenuous yet sweet balance.
Sahar Mustafah went first, landing herself squarely in the back of a squad car for nothing more than an overdue license registration and a couple of missed court dates. This is a woman who doesn’t get herself in trouble— while being locked up, she groaned about missing a few hours of grading essays. Mustafah used this incident as a vehicle for exploring the traumas we inflict upon our children—throwing their burritos out the windows because they wouldn’t share, having them too young and scarring them through divorce. We laughed when the burrito flew out the window, we smiled when her children came running into her arms upon being bailed out, yet we contemplated the darker things we do as parents or that our parents have done to us.
Nicole Chakalis’s story centered on a parent too, a shitty one who just happened to be dead. (At 2nd Story shows, sex, death and police cars are de riguer). At her father’s funeral, she saw each of her five sisters, anywhere from partnered to strung-out and drunk, and her mother refused her father’s veteran flag. Her even, at times verging on sarcastic voice kept us going. So much hilarity—Chakalis altering the price tag on a funeral suit, shuddering at the offer of a beer at 10 am, even the moment where her mother says no to the flag—mixed with the poignancy of losing a father you never had. And the ending, where Chakalis returned her funeral suit for the original, several-hundred dollar more price, just like her daddy would have…killed.
Before I go any further, let’s talk about the venue and how it should never be used again for a show this size. Martyrs is one large room, but it felt incredibly small for the crowd. There were nowhere near enough tables and people consistently had to elbow through other people to get the smallest tasks done. Columbia used to use Buddy Guy’s for this very popular event, which had its own problems (kicking under-21s out right as the event would end, creepy washroom attendant that made you question your own sense of privilege, expensive food), but somehow that space seemed larger. The minute I walked into Martyrs, I instantly wished I wasn’t there, and felt like I had no room to circulate through the friends and acquaintances I wanted to see. And further proving the point, at least one person fainted (he’s OK now), and there were rumors of another. Perhaps there was something to be said for the intimacy, (see below), but while the service was friendly and the free food delicious, a venue that makes people feel faint is a venue no one likes.
The next reader was Julia Borcherts (who, full disclosure, is a dear friend and neighbor). You may have seen Julia’s work in the RedEye or other local papers, but every time I’ve heard one of Julia’s personal pieces, I’m floored. Not just because this tiny dynamic woman with a penchant for dresses never seemed the type to date crackheads and learn welding, but because she is so goddamn powerful. Her story was a standout in the 2nd Story print collection, and if Darwyn Jones hadn’t been there Julia would have ruled the evening (still did, anyway). She made us laugh with a story about an abortion. One she had. Sex and death in one not-very neat package. Aside from using the wonderful phrase “redneck toddler”, she made us ponder her choice with her and once again, marvel at her strength. When is Julia going to do a one-woman show already?! And if she doesn’t do it alone, can she do it with Darwyn Jones? A veteran of RUI and other reading series, Darywn’s clout as a performer is unequalled. That mix of humor and tears this 2nd Story had—Darwyn always has it. Tonight he may have topped himself.
Here’s where we talk about me again. I can’t pretend that as a very proud queer I’m not secretly thrilled when a story line doesn’t stay heterosexual, and that I actively enjoy queer stories slightly more than straight ones. But this, this is a story for the ages. Darwyn comes home two years after coming out, to Missouri, visiting his mom. She wants to bring him to church. Suspicious, he asks if it’s about the gay thing, and it is: the congregation hasn’t met a gay person before. Everyone he meets smiles at him, tells him he’s handsome and his mother’s so proud. Then it hits him: she hasn’t told them why he's there…nor has she told him he’ll be singing at the end of services. Well, his fear took hold of him then, but he sang for us, and the amazing band backed him! Singing! Could it get any better?
We were standing there, my friends and I, three queers, as Darwyn…Darwyn told us that years later, his mom’s pastor told her never to have him in her house because of who he was. She had him anyway. He asked to imagine all the photos of him gone, all the love taken back, and because I know what that’s like (long story), I turned to my friend and my lover and said, “oh, that already happened.” They knew, and they hugged me, yet I didn’t starting crying until this:
I don’t know Megan Stielstra, one of 2nd Story’s founders, and one of the night’s emcees, all that well. Her work is amazing and we compliment each other, but I unfortunately never had her as a professor and likely never will. As my friends released me, she grabbed my hand in a firm tight grip that never wavered until Darwyn finished his last syllable and she was due back on stage. And we stood there, like we were in a church, like we were going to tear apart if we didn’t keep holding on, and the tears rolled down my cheeks. This is 2nd Story’s power, distilled. This is what happens when you tell your story. This is what happens when people listen.
Filed under: Event Reviews