Journalist brings stories to the stage in community theatrical performance
Natalie Coleman is a freelance journalist based in Cincinnati. She writes creative nonfiction and long-form narrative journalism with a focus on civil rights, cultural criticism & human-interest stories. She is studying journalism & English at the University of Cincinnati. You can find her on Twitter at @nataliecoleman.
From behind the curtain, eight women emerge on stage with shoulders back and heads held high, each clad in matching purple sweatshirts emblazoned with the words “Sister Circle.” They meet in the center of the stage in a circle, taking each other’s hands for a short prayer. Together, these women represent unity, friendship and faith in a Cincinnati housing project built with bricks and run by single mothers. They represent the place they are from: Winton Terrace. Brick City.
Elissa Yancey, one of ivoh’s 2015 Restorative Narrative Fellows, used her stipend to spend six months telling the stories of resilience and recovery in Winton Terrace. Yancey’s five-part series, titled “A Prayer for Winton Terrace,” follows LaMonica Sherman, a pastor, praise dancer and leader of the Sister Circle, a monthly support group and refuge for the women of Winton Terrace. But once Yancey completed reporting LaMonica’s story, she felt it still wasn’t finished and that there was something left to say.
“As journalists, when we tell stories, we’re saying that what we’re writing about matters,” she said. “The evolution of this restorative narrative is that they are now stepping out to say for themselves: ‘I matter.’”
In a small performance hall packed with more than 100 people, the Sister Circle of Winton Terrace performed “I Am From…Winton Terrace,” a collaborative performance written by members of the Sister Circle with the guidance of Yancey. After meeting every month for eight years to learn, share and grow through one another, the women took to the stage for two nights to finally tell for themselves the stories of their lives and the power of their unity.
Yancey was drawn to the Sister Circle’s stories of resilience, and the women trusted her almost immediately, adopting Yancey into their circle of stories. The eight women from the Sister Circle embody a breadth of experiences: from childhoods spent in foster homes, to drug addictions and even jail time, their stories shed light on a community that many people know nothing about. “The Sister Circle is just like a family,” Yancey said. “All the women feel a kinship that I could sense from the very beginning.”
One phrase that echoed like a mantra throughout the performance was,“You are not alone.” “It’s what LaMonica saw was needed in the community,” Yancey said. “Everybody felt isolated, everybody felt alone, and everybody felt like they had to do it all alone, but the Sister Circle gives them the strength and the support to do it all.” Each of the women spoke their lines with power, passion and pride, facing out toward the audience with their sisters by their side.
The youngest member of the sister circle, LaQuita Marshall, is only a freshman in high school, passionate about writing fiction and storytelling. The performance gave her the confidence to tell her own story. “My story might help someone in a way that I don’t know,” she said. “When you overcome something, you shouldn’t be embarrassed. I don’t feel any shame because I’ve overcome it and I’m stronger because of it.”
The performance allowed the women of Winton Terrace to tell their story in their own words. They shared the smells, tastes and details of their lives — the TVs left on all day, the smells of incense and weed, the taste of ox-tail soup and marshmallows roasted on gas stoves — but also the experiences that have shaped who they are.
Yancey led the women in a writing prompt derived from Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon, who is collecting a poem from every county in Kentucky. After her restorative narrative was published, Yancey decided to gather the women of Sister Circle to write down their own “Where I’m from” poem, revealing parts of their lives and experiences which have made them who they are. Yancey went around and selected lines and phrases from each notebook, compiling them into one collective poem. When she read it aloud to the women, they were amazed it was their own writing.
Sherman, the central subject of Yancey’s restorative narrative, believes the story has helped her find her own value, and has helped the women of the Sister Circle see their purpose as leaders for their community. “Years ago when I first started the Sister Circle, I would have never imagined this happening,” Sherman said. “Elissa’s story really opened my eyes and helped me see my purpose more clearly. She has helped us see our value beyond measures and she has helped us see that the impossible can happen, even with us.”
Yancey saw the performance as a way for the women to become the writers of their own stories. “That’s really the whole point when we talk about restorative narratives; they’re restoring their own,” Yancey said. “The story was about the community and its strength and resilience, but now, they’re restoring it themselves. That narrative is in their hands to take forward.”
Looking toward the future, Yancey hopes to expand the audience of the Sister Circle’s Winton Terrace story. She’ll be meeting regularly with the women to help them organize performances, as the Sister Circle hopes to do a Christmas performance for the Winton Terrace community who couldn’t see the show. Eventually, Yancey hopes to develop a book or curriculum focusing on the idea that where we’re from is an enriching and formative element of who we are.
“I don’t think you can be restored without acknowledging the richness that your experiences have given you, and for me, this felt like the work that needed to be done,” Yancey said. “I feel like I have benefited so much and worked really hard, but also learned a lot about the transformative power of storytelling. We talk about it a lot, but I actually saw it happen. That to me was incredibly gratifying.”