“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do ” – Brené Brown
Early next month I take to stage with a fellow storyteller to share stories about my journey with my mother. My solo piece is called ‘Killing My Mother’!
When I think of the phrase ‘killing my mother’ there are three stories that come to mind. The first story features the statement – ‘I never killed my mother, so you cannot kill me’. This was something my mother often said, as she would beat me in my teens whenever I misbehaved. The second features – ‘You have killed me!’ This was the first thing that my mother screamed when in my late 20s I told her that I was gay. The third features – ‘You made your mother miserable and that misery killed her’. This was what my mother’s pastor told me when I returned to Nigeria in my 40s for my mother’s funeral.
I recently sat down with my fellow storytelling collaborator (Paul Woodward) to discuss our upcoming performance, our inspiration and intentions….. here is our conversation…..
Ade: I’m really excited about our upcoming Fathers+Mothers storytelling performance.
What was your inspiration for collaborating on the piece?
Paul: To be honest I’ve never considered myself a performer… I’d say I was a director and dramaturg first and for most.. but through a variety of chances and circumstance I found myself working in Melbourne with the legendary performance storyteller and gay activist Tim Miller from the US on an ensemble storytelling piece about bodies and memory… I performed a short piece about my relationship to my father’s body and how this showed up in my relationships as an adult… And it was a revelation.
When I’d acted previously when I was much younger I kind of felt that there was this veil between myself and the audience… and the result was that they didn’t seem to get me and I didn’t seem to get them.. so I was never satisfied with performing and so went the directing route… In the show in Melbourne though something had changed and that veil just wasn’t there… It felt amazing… as soon as I stepped out onto the stage I felt both seen and connected… the audience saw me and I saw them… they got me and I got them… and it was great.. I truly believe that this was a result of my work journeying with The Quest… I was able to be authentic on stage and it was electrifying… Tim took me to one side and INSISTED that I work on my existing material and develop it into a whole evening show… I was immediately challenged and was going to decline… but when one of your heroes tells you to do something… well I guess you do it… and so I did… I’m going to blame him if it’s all a disaster! lol…
How about you?
Ade: Storytelling has always been a core part of how I have expressed myself. For many years I had forgotten this, as I got lost in climbing the corporate ladder.
I remember visiting Nigeria in 2010 when my sister reminded me of how I would get the children in our building together at nighttime to tell them a range of stories. Her reflection came at a time when I was feeling dissatisfied with life generally and feeling disconnected from my TRUE Self. I had quit my full time/permanent job to go on a journey of reconnection and rediscovery. As part of that journey, I attended a range of storytelling and improvisation workshops and fell in love all over again with telling stories. This culminated with being on stage last year (and early this year) with guys from The Quest. With my mother passing away last year, I have been remembering my journey with her and I feel pregnant with all these stories that are dying to be born – dying to be told!
Paul: Yeah, that’s pretty much how I felt about my father and the story of my relationship with him… it seemed in my memory there were all these jigsaw puzzle pieces that just didn’t add up… I just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) put them together.. I just wasn’t sure what I would find out when I did… when someone dies there is an enigma there… and in my case I didn’t get to say goodbye to my father… so in terms of process there were two core impulses… to try to use story and theatre to piece together the puzzle… and to find the most powerful and creative and healing way I could imagine to say goodbye to my father… and hello to myself as a fatherless son… and to stand back and see and feel the power in that sense of ascendancy – if that makes any sense?
Ade: Yes, that does make sense and I can relate. I spent the last 2 years before my mother dying putting together this jigsaw puzzle of our relationship and it got to a point where I started to wonder what had really happened – in terms of truth and imagined truth. In one of my final conversations with my mother, we were talking about an event that had happened in my childhood and we had both remembered it differently. I also witnessed this when I went through the diaries that she had kept where some of the things she had written down did not match how I had remembered it. So for me, preparing for the performance has taken me on this journey of remembering – bringing memories back together; in terms of events and my interpretation of those events.
I feel very much like Hansel and Gretel following the breadcrumbs trying to make my way back home, but some of the crumbs have disappeared, so I am sometimes having to guess and re-imagine where they might have been!
Paul: Perfect analogy, in fact its the kind of idea I’ve been working on with The Haunting project too with the guys… both The Father+Mother project and that project have, at their core, a fundamental mystery – namely ‘what happened’? – and this is told by a narrator, but there is that question when working with memory and story – can we actually trust the narrator, or are they ‘unreliable’ – as I get older I have begun to understand that what I have previously told as ‘experiences’ are in fact ‘perceptions of that experience’ – even though they happened to me, they happened to me as maybe a 4 year old, but I’m re-telling that as a 47 year old… and in the telling of that story there is a fundamental discomfort… a clash between the ideas and decisions about the world that I made as a child to get through childhood and those of an adult gay man in his 40’s… its a wonderful and creative discomfort though.. a bit like the grit in the oyster.. the pearl here is enlightenment through resolution.
Making this piece has allowed me to go back in time to get to feel my 4 year old who still lives inside of me… to allow him voice and expression… to say ‘I understand’… and then when I do, he’s all ok and silent and happy again just because I acknowledged him… as much as I’m honoring my father I’m honoring myself through this process too… and I’m many ways it feels like the ultimate test of everything I have learned as part of my journey with The Quest.
Ade: Yes, autobiographical storytelling for me is often about a variety of things – making sense of the past, healing the wounds of the past, rediscovering how the past has influenced who I am today….. and to entertain the listener! Ultimately as the storyteller, remembering the past allows me to be more fully myself in the present. For I am no longer haunted by my shadows or ghosts. The process has been very much an exorcism!
What do you feel the audience will take away from The Fathers + Mothers project?
Paul: A fundamental strategy of The Quest is simply to ‘speak from the ‘I’ – because when we generalize it can mean that we attempt to speak for others, and possibly not be fully committed to ourselves and our feelings in the process – but the knock on effect is that when a participant on the courses starts to learn to speak from the ‘I’ – they suddenly become relatable… and in doing so, suddenly I see my experience in their own now that they are owning it with clarity and bravery.
On one level this show is just me talking about me and my father as honestly and as authentically as I can… and in doing so I really hope my own investigation into my relationship with my father as a gay HIV+ man will be relatable to anyone that has had a relationship with a parent where its taken a while to be able to understand each other and find peace with them… that’s the hope anyways… and in going there… maybe find some point of hope for change… Because in doing this work I do feel healed, and I do feel really really loved by my father… I don’t think I would have ever truly found that out if I hadn’t taken Tim’s advice and pushed past my own fear to take on this project.
Ade: For me the power of autobiographical storytelling is that in the listening we get a glimpse of the Oneness that binds all of us – for on the surface we may be different in terms of what we look like and what may have happened or not happened to us, but beneath it all we are not that much different. Brene Brown in her work says that we are all hardwired for connection and I truly and deeply believe this. And this comes through in both our stories – you and your father, me and my mother – it’s a story of connection, disconnection and everything in between.
Paul: Its been really interesting in that although we developed our stories apart, when we did finally start to rehearse together there were all these interesting points of connectivity – completely different geographical and ethnographic environments, but certain themes, and maybe more importantly, ‘feelings’, were there in both our pieces… I’m present to the fact that there are specifics in the lives of gay men – and during this process I’ve realized that I sometimes push my feelings about these specifics underground… maybe because I have judged them as too clichéd or something or not worth the airtime… but in honoring these through story and theatre I rediscover them… and I actually feel more well rounded as a gay man… its like I’m making a map of my journey… a specifically gay cartography… and this map allows me to find me… I really hope that other people can follow the map too.. and create their own in the process…
Ade: I can relate to that. In considering the stories I wanted to bring to the project I was conscious that I wanted to also connect with the many gay men who are not fully accepted by their parents for who they are. Even though we now live in a world that is more embracing on some level, there are still corners of the world where many parents struggle with accepting and celebrating their gay children, and in our youth we may have interpreted that as something to do with us – I know I did! In my longing for connection, I would sacrifice authenticity! And this also applied to my mothers journey… she sacrificed so much for connection. As I think about it now, I’d like the audience to also leave pondering on what they sacrificed in their own pursuit of connection.
Paul: Yeah that’s brilliant – its funny because sometimes autobiographical storytelling is seen as a big old ego trip… but I’ve never seen it like that as I personally learn so much about myself from other peoples stories if told authentically and from the heart… if it was all EGO then I would switch off… but if its coming from SELF then I connect and somehow I feel less alone in the world… yeah… And I think in making these pieces I’ve become aware of the difference between these two modes both in myself and in the world in general… One thing that I’ve been asking myself all along is ‘would dad approve of this and would I invite him to see it if he were alive’ – and my answer is actually ‘yes’ because at the end of his life when he was at peace with his cancer he went through such a period of letting go of ego and embraced his true self… it was wonderful to see… but it took death to provoke this change… for me its not so much death… its creative theatre…
Ade: Oh, it can certainly be EGO driven and over indulgent, if the storyteller is not mindful – I’d like to feel that we are that, and congruent with where we are in our respective lives.
Not sure my mother would approve of me telling these stories – she would consider it washing our dirty linen in public. She struggled with me being openly gay and in fact her priest told me that someone had showed her some of my Facebook postings and she had felt shame. So in fact the title of my piece is really apt – for going on stage to tell my stories would ‘kill my mother!’
Paul: I’ve got to say I’m really fascinated by the next phase of our project next year when we switch focus and you do a piece about your father and I do mine about my mother… how are you feeling about that prospect?
Ade: I’m so immersed in this one that I cannot see that far yet…. but when I do, I am sure that I will be equally excited!
Any final words?
Paul: Yeah.. I was talking to The Haunting cast about the challenges of solo shows… I think it would be great to get as many solo shows from Quest graduates out there.. It’s like an ultimate test of authenticity and growth and courage to be yourself…. we are just pioneering the first shows… its over to our graduates next!
Ade: Yes, I am sure there will be many more shows to come, after all everyone has a story to tell! I’m really excited about the upcoming shows on 5 and 6 October!!!
Paul: Yeah me too… It will be great to see as many Quest graduates there as possible to help us through it! It’s been a pleasure talking to you my lovely co-performer!
Ade: Likewise…… see you at the next rehearsal!
Tickets for the show can be obtained here – https://fatherandmotherproject.eventbrite.co.uk/