Storytelling wasn't invented in the south, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise after listening to the talented cadre of performers assembled for the World Channel's Stories from the Stage. Recorded live at the Cumberland County Playhouse, the time-tested themes of home, family, and perseverance clearly resonate with local audiences, but their appeal reaches far beyond East Tennessee, reaffirming the notion that certain threads of the human experience transcend place and time.
Hosted by award winning local news personality Demetria Kaladimos, the show's format is simple and forthright; the producers wisely choosing not to linger on overlong introductions and keep the performers in the spotlight. The artists run the gamut from small town barbers, to playwrights, educators, and retired politicians. The stories that emerge from this eclectic lot are as varied in theme and tone as the people telling them. And while all of the storytellers presented polished and well crafted works, there were a few stand out performances worthy of particular mention.
Dwight Henry is a self described 'reformed politician' turned minister, with a voice and stage presence honed through a lifetime of frequent public speaking. Henry regales the audience with a humorous account his unlikely meteoric rise through the ranks of local government; his wry social commentary and polished folksy persona calling up the likes of Samuel Clemons. In a time of increasing political divisiveness Henry's story reminds us (without ever saying as much) that there are certain issues on which the overwhelming majority of us can agree, and that when it comes to politics, ideals sometimes are less important than, of all things: chocolate.
Ruth Phipps provides a moving personal account of her struggle to integrate her differently-abled daughter into a small southern community years before such things had entered the social consciousness. Ruth's storytelling is purposeful and punctuated, giving the feeling that she is recalling these events in the moment, and inviting you to see them as they unfold. While she remains entirely humble about the challenges she has overcome, the sheer tenacity of her character shines through as she describes her experiences and makes a heartfelt call for increased empathy and understanding.
In the hands of playwright Harrison Young, an unusually difficult carnival game becomes the subject of one of the evening's most delightful stories. A seasoned stage artist, Young's speaks to the packed theater with the ease and candor you'd expect from an old friend at a dinner party. Young's story is full of humor and human folly and he knows how to push and pull the crowd's attention, setting up punchlines, unafraid of pregnant pauses, and building a series of satisfying climaxes that ultimately serve to create of the night's most roundly satisfying works.
Sandy Lewis, another theatre veteran, presents us with a familiar archetypal narrator and a story that, in less deft hands, could easily have fallen into moralizing or preciousness, but Lewis achieves both a satisfying narrative and a thoughtful climax without resorting to either. Lewis' command of her character is such that the audience is never certain how much of the chatty, quippy and immanently likable southern lady is Lewis herself and how much is her stage persona, but that question quickly gives way to our interest in the heartfelt and wholesome story she tells.
Jim Everitt, Cynthia Putman, Anne Looney Cook, and Morris Irby round out the evening with delightful moving, and inspirational tales of their own. Each in turn coloring the stage with stories from their own lives that paint a larger picture of life in the south both past and present.
Stories from the Stage finds its place in a continuous line of East Tennessee storytelling and makes for highly enjoyable viewing for the whole family. The show will air over two nights on the World Channel this fall. Check local listings for show dates and time.
- JP Schuffman is a theatre critic and Managing Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club: a non-profit theatre company committed expanding the output, diversity, and reach of the region's theatre artists.
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