A few years ago I heard Anna Deavere Smith speak in my hometown, Asheville, North Carolina. Smith is an acclaimed actress, playwright and professor and is featured on television shows like The West Wing and Nurse Jackie. When I saw her perform, she chose monologues from two of her plays, Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, both of which received Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding One-Person Show. She switched seamlessly from one diverse character to another, performing monologues based entirely on interviews she conducted. The result was one of the most hilarious, infuriating, heart wrenching and beautiful pieces of theatre I’ve ever witnessed. Since then, I’ve had a desire to tell stories like she did, to sift through the words and memories of a few people in my community and brings their stories to the surface. Amid an overflowing college schedule, that dream has slowly been pushed further and further down. I think this Minor in Writing Capstone project is the perfect opportunity to bring it to life.
When I began searching the overwhelming University of Michigan databases, I expected to find a few interesting ideas or articles, but nothing particular compelling. Yet, what I found left me breathless. I chose to search through the American Culture database, since telling a community’s stories would explore just that. In that database, I searched for “storytelling” and found nothing. So, I went to the heart of what I want to do, the “interviews”. The first link that popped up was the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, full of filmed interviews of survivors from everything from the Holocaust to Rwandan Tutsi Genocide. This foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg, tells the stories of survivors and witnesses. Today, they’ve gathered nearly 52,000 testimonies! As the interviewer asks questions to keep the dialogue moving, the survivors simply sit and tell their stories. Watching those interviews, I was covered in goose bumps and completely enraptured.
One particular interview stuck with me. A woman named Hanah Grinfild, a Holocaust survivor, spoke of starving in a concentration camp. Near death, she took a risk when she asked to leave the camp to use the restroom in the woods. She saw a small cabin with fire coming out of the chimney and decided to take the risk and knock on the door. A frightened older woman opened the door and asked quickly what she wanted. When she realized Grinfild was starving, she risked her and her husband’s life by bringing Grinfild in and quickly feeding her before she ran back to the camp. Grinfild returned to the home one more time. The older woman fed her again and gave her a pair of man’s shoes with brand new soles, which her husband had done just for Grinfild. Grinfild, whose feet were wrapped in newspaper and nearly frozen, ran back to camp with a pair of shoes that left her with hope that “there were still people in the world who were human beings”. She then said, “We never returned to that place. I could never thank them. But I will always remember the people, the kindness, the humanity”.
Her story, which I also found on Youtube, can be found here :
From the outside, she merely looked like a woman who had lived a full life, wrinkles etched into her paling skin and her gray hair pulled into a low bun. Yet, behind the everyday façade was a world of pain, unimaginable devastation and beautiful strength. There was a story that needed to be told.
How many people do I pass on the streets of Ann Arbor each day with a story that needs to be told? I don’t know the answer, but I know that it’s far too many people for me to not bring a few of their voices and stories to life.
My research solidified my topic for this project, but also raised several big questions. How will I find the right people to interview and will they want to tell me their stories? What do I do with their interviews? Do I compile a video series, write a series of poems inspired by them or turn them into dramatic monologues like Anna Deavere Smith? What story needs to be told in my community? After watching Hanah Grinfild’s story, these are questions I couldn’t be more excited, or obligated, to answer.