Thanks to support from the Illinois Department of Public Health, Chicago theater company Collaboraction is exploring the impact of oral history, one story at a time. We learn about the group’s newest project, “Family Tree Stories,” and how it’s working to unite the city through storytelling.
“What is a story?” Collaboraction Artistic Director Anthony Moseley asks. “A story is an artistic form of a life and we believe that by sharing our stories, we share our lives.”
“Family Tree Stories,” a new video series from the theater company, features oral histories from a number of Chicago storytellers. The goal is to not only honor family histories but to use the strength of storytelling as a way to connect people.
“We become informed of the past through the telling of stories,” said one of the featured storytellers Loretta “Firekeeper” Hawkins. “That’s how we save our histories.”
Hawkins is a member of one of the 15 featured families in the series. Her stories, which she shared in the form of spoken word, were the same stories she’d grown up hearing from her mother.
Storyteller Priya Shya says the stories her mother shared with her growing up have formed her identity.
“What I spoke about was being Indian but my mom growing up in East Africa under colonial British rule,” Shya said. “So the things that you understand about how cultures really intersect and how that flows together, and a lot of my mom’s roots are still very much African. She considers herself Ugandan more than considering herself Indian sometimes because that’s where she grew up and the culture she experienced. The storytelling around it is powerful enough that I feel connected to Africa, as well as being Indian.”
With the help of an interactive map online, people can search keywords or certain neighborhoods as a way to visualize how the stories and the experiences are connected.
“These themes and habits of human behavior really are repetitive,” Shya said. “So if we look back about what has happened before us, we can see that we can do them again if we don’t understand the implications of our behaviors.”
“At Collaboraction, we cultivate stories that give us insight into what it means to belong to each other, and all the forces that are there pulling us apart,” says Dr. Marcus Robinson, the group’s executive director. “Our issue is, can we understand the systems that pull us apart well enough to navigate ourselves back towards one another and find each other in dialogue and share stories and ideas and let those issues change us?”
“When we share our lives with each other, we make ourselves vulnerable and able to change,” Moseley said. “Both ourselves and each other. What better way to learn and grow than with a community of people?”
The next phase of the “Family Tree Stories” project requires your input. The public will soon be allowed to upload and submit their own video recordings to be included in the family tree library. In the meantime, you can watch the first set of family stories here.
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Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.