One of the new storytelling experiments I—and when I say "I," I mean Christen Thomas of GMan Tavern, David Himmel of Literate Ape, Joe Shanahan of the Metro, my wife, multiple storytellers and a bunch of audience members as well as the kickass staff at GMan Tavern, but that takes too long so we'll go with the narcissistic pronoun, K?—am embarking upon is Identity Flip.
Started as a joke between Scott Whitehair and myself as we brainstormed shows we'd never do, the idea of identity and how essential or unimportant it all is niggled into my brainpan until the show blossomed up from the bad idea to a truly interesting and thought-provoking experience.
We've done four of them to date and each one has opened up concepts that were anticipated and have surprised me, in the way all good experiments should I think. Watching straight white men and straight black women switch their personal narratives for about eight minutes a pop reveals how different our life experiences can be but also how incredibly similar our base reactions to the things life throws at us are. Boomers and Millennials flipping was hilarious and moving in turn.
More than anything, the performances have confirmed for me that identity is a choice we make based on a host of factors.
Speaking with a young black woman last week after the show, she told me how she was black but raised by a white couple and that this confused things for her as she moved to Chicago. This conversation was inspired by Mari DeOleo's story of feeling she was white in the Dominican Republic but was black in Chicago as read by the very white male Sean Keen.
One of the surprises for me has been that, in curating the evening, I'm very conscious of presenting as much a fully Chicago face on the stage as possible. But each white male I've put onstage has been so different in how he wears that identity. Each black woman I've asked to perform has been so completely unique in how they own both their blackness and their womanhood. Having these stories told by other people instantly opens up the lens of identity and lays bare the crazy contradictions and importance of these labels.
Identity is that which we find our own self worth. It is the moniker we decide is most representative of our essential I—being professionally successful, being highly educated, making a lot of money, being an excellent parent, being pious and faithful in a chosen religion, being socially and/or sexually popular and desired, being physically attractive or beautiful. It includes areas that we have no control over but decide to embrace—our skin color, our gender, our sexual preferences, our physicality.
Race and gender and physicality are born-in traits but the choice is not to erase them but to either embrace the stereotypes laid upon skin color, sexuality and disability or buck those stereotypes. Culture, hair style, language—the trappings of the outward display of identity - are all conscious choices.
What you choose indicates what you value in life
Jeff grew up without. Without money, without the things money could buy, without a sense of security that a bit more cash in hand would provide. He came to value the earning of money as a priority and built his identity around being a breadwinner. He invested in his portfolio, worked 100 hours a week, no amount could ever be enough. He wore the clothes most associated with wealth and power. When Jeff lost his job in an economic downturn, Jeff's very identity came into question and his sense of loss and confusion spun him into a deep depression.
Jeff chose to value money over everything else and when it dried up, he was as a man without a country, a ship without a sail. As the money dried up, so did his self worth.
For much of the last decade-and-a-half, I wrapped my identity up in the Angry White Guy thing (a satirical comment on the stereotype of the NASCAR loving, flag waving, trucker hat wearing rubes I grew up around). It was a badge I wore, an identity I strove to project. Sure, I'm frequently pretty angry ("That's the secret," replied Banner. "I'm always angry.") but those who know me intimately were privy to other facets of the fundamental me that I chose to keep discretely under the uniform.
Around the point that it became obvious that Trump was a possible furreal candidate and the White Nationalist started coming out of the woodwork and from under the fetid rocks they'd been hiding under, I suddenly found myself questioning both the humor of this identity as well as what it was doing for me in life.
The black nerd who goes to Comic Con and dresses up like a superhero. The young woman wholly soaked in the semi-misandry of fifth wave feminism who loves no one more than her Republican father. The middle-aged man who becomes a body builder and has the body of a twenty-five year old and the head of Clint Eastwood's leathery ball sack who collects Hummel figurines. The Suicide Girl who is also a Child Psychologist. The Undocumented Immigrant who runs for public office. The Frat Bro who works at the animal shelter. The Social Justice Warrior who loves Judy Blume books. The Poet who won't miss a Michael Bay film. The Rock Drummer who has five cats. The Sensitive Writer who loves crap TV. The Hipster Guy with a Beard that looks like the brillo-like asshole of a Grizzly Bear who is a surgeon.
Underneath each of these identities is more. More person. More depth. More complexity.
One side of the conversation will tell you that identity politics is a bane on society. The other side will tell you it is about fucking time. Like all things, the Truth is somewhere in between as each of us is not one thing or the other. In the fight against the binary nature of our snake brains, the diversification of our identities is the road to presenting ourselves as genuine people rather than cartoon cut-outs of the stereotypes so easily digested.
I'm grateful for the opportunity for this experiment in storytelling. As I tell the audience each time, the worst thing that can happen is that they will enjoy an hour of great stories. The best thing that can occur is an hour of great stories followed by dialogue over beer about these very ideas.