It's the Common Ground Rather Than the Differences That Unify Us

By Don Hall

"It tastes like chicken."

Why do we do that? Why do we compare a meat we aren't used to, that perhaps sounds alien like snake or crocodile or stingray, to the most common of American meat products?

I'd wager we do that because trying new and different things contains a risk. For most of us, risk is a bit uncomfortable because it has a real chance of tasting like shit. Which upon signaling our distaste, we are immediately judged for our terribly pedestrian tastes and told we are terrible people for sticking to the Olive Garden as fine dining.

Chicken, to Americans is basic. It's easy. Sure, you can dress it up in Jamaican jerk spices, boil it in a bowl of ramen, mop it up with a piece of injera, or fry it up covered in dough and spices but it's always chicken. Comparing that which is unusual or different to chicken eases the fear of trying the cuisine of faraway lands. It eases us into the experience (because, face it, almost none of it actually tastes like chicken.)

In the monolithic reductionism of today's political climate it turns out that all white men are just Bill O'Reilly in cheaper suits, anyone who prefers logical communication over emotional tirades is part of the problem, and alienation, exclusion and public shaming are the go to tactics of both the Far Right and Left wings of the radical fringe.

To suggest that we, as Americans and human beings, need to find common ground and compromise is to be accused of denigrating the #BlackLivesMatter with the erroneous #AllLivesMatter. To suggest that culture is no more than costume (which is why it is so easy to re-appropriate for crappy college Halloween parties) is to proliferate the deep racism inherent in our history.

We are told that we can't tell stories about other cultures but when we tell our own stories we are narcissistic which is just a circular way of saying "Shut the fuck up for a change." The idea of consent has become nearly impossible effectively making any heterosexual contact a minefield of rape culture accusations ready and waiting.

I've taught storytelling workshops off and on since 1999, and in preparing to launch another series (The Woodshed) I've been honing up the curriculum. A central concept behind my views on stories is that of finding Universal Commonality. Find the chicken to compare things to. Steinbeck nailed it in East of Eden when he wrote:

"If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen. And here I make a rule—a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last."

Contrary to dissenting opinions, this is not a dismissal of the importance of hearing diverse voices on stages. In fact, just the opposite. The stories of white people dominate the American popular culture, which means that so many are missing out on some amazingly rich and meaningful stories from people with a bit darker skin and very different experiences living in this country.

The question at hand is twofold: How does one tell a great story in the Steinbeckian model, and how do we as producers, artists and listeners increase the culinary options for all of our audiences with a bit of spice and pain and love and different voices speaking different truths?

The answer to the first is relatively simple. Tell stories that first resonate with that sense of common ground with the reality that while culture, language, religious background and ethnicity are essential in our perspective, all are just costumes we wear to mark ourselves in tribes—spices that change the chicken to something unique. Tales rooted in our humanity at the forefront draw us in and make us want to understand the differences.

This requires craft as well as self reflection. Certainly, anyone can get up and tell their truth. Given the malleability of both memory and the mirror image we project, one's truth is often flawed and self-ennobling and is thus, in need of scrutiny. Craft is intentional and specific. Rather than simply getting up and orating like one would on a porch or in the back of a bar, to write and tell stories that, as Steinbeck challenges, are great, what is required is hard looks into finding those universal human truths and pruning ego and/or victimhood out. If you are either the hero, the villain, or the victim in your story, tell a different story, that is, reframe your story to be less sympathetic to your place in it.

The answer to the second is more complicated.  

I see a three-pronged approach to increasing the presence of voices previously ignored.

First, current producers and curators of storytelling nights need to actively seek out those voices, those stories. A perfect example in progress is Scott Whitehair's This Much is True. Take a look at the list of performers and you see all colors, all ages, all backgrounds represented. Whitehair understands that this is a marathon rather than a sprint and curates accordingly. Major institutions are in the act as well with outreach programs from Second City, Steppenwolf, the Goodman Theatre as well as mid-sized and smaller arts organizations reaching out to marginalized voices and folding them into the fabric of their seasons.

Second, people from within those communities need to step up and produce and curate shows themselves. David Fink's OUTSpoken is a great example of this as well as Cara Brigandi's Grown Folks Stories. What makes them special is that their shows are open to everyone of all stripes but they heavily work within communities traditionally non-hetero and non-white, which brings a certain needed balance. Not strident or exclusionary but welcoming and inclusive, shows like these are far and few between so the work is necessary.

Third, Big Philanthropy needs to step up with funds that support organizations like Young Chicago Authors and to finance after school programs designed to encourage kids in the least provided for schools to learn the craft of stories.

I suppose if there is a fourth prong, it is to seek out shows that promote a more inclusive curation and go to them. Support them with dollars and attendance.  

It isn't the differences that unite us in art or life. It is the similarities that start the conversation and help us to appreciate the differences in such a bold and progressive way that eventually we won't have to say "It tastes like chicken" because chicken will not be the basic American meat but just another kind of meat among so many others.