On Saturday, May 1, 2010, I drove to the Indiana History Center in downtown Indianapolis to hear professional storyteller Olga Loya present “Nepantla: Between Worlds.”
I had been looking forward to this event ever since Olga mentioned her “Nepantla” piece at the 2008 Going Deep: Long Traditional Stories Festival. It was, as I had expected: enjoyable, uplifting and thought-provoking.
Nepantla: Between Latino and Anglo Cultures
Olga is a bilingual storyteller. She smoothly switches back and forth between Spanish and English in a way that feels as if you’re tuning back and forth between radio channels. If you know Spanish, you laugh first. If you don’t know Spanish, you laugh a moment later but in the meantime the beautiful, incomprehensible sounds wash over you in a pleasing way.
Not that everything in this program is funny. In the first part of the evening, Olga shares experiences from her childhood in the barrio of East Los Angeles, California. The stories within this larger story include a funny folktale that her grandmother used to tell her, by request, over and over again…but also a few more painful, and even “just” plain interesting, experiences along Olga’s journey to find a comfortable label for herself. She incorporates various personal, family, and public history stories as she tells the arc story of going from MEXICAN-American to Mexican-AMERICAN to Chicana to Latina.
Nepantlas from the Audience
Just before the intermission, Olga reads aloud her list of “nepantlas” that she has been collecting from her audiences around the United States. The list is very long, and I didn’t think that we, her Indianapolis audience, would have anything to add, but people did raise their hands when Olga asked, “What is an example of a nepantla, a way of being between worlds, in your own life?”
“Daughter/caregiver” someone said. “Working for someone else/being my own boss,” said someone else. “The technology shift from TV and paper to digital…” “Western medicine/eastern medicine…” “Having hair to being bald!”
Everyone laughed at that last one. Then Olga said, “Now find a partner and tell your partner about a nepantla in your life.”
I scooted over to talk with Alice, a teacher that often volunteers her free time to help with Storytelling Arts events. I won’t tell you what Alice shared with me because I didn’t ask her permission first, but I can tell you that the first nepantla that came to my mind was: my rewarding day job/my rewarding theatre blogging job.
Nepantla: From Rage to Forgiveness
After the intermission, Olga shared a monologue that she had written. She performed it not as herself but as the character of the narrator, Maria Chavez, a woman whose only son was murdered by a fellow gang member, also a very young teenager. The story is called “I Will Kill You!” because that is what Maria says to the murderer as she passes him in the courtroom after he receives only a light sentence because of his youth.
Over time, though, Maria visits the boy in prison and tries to understand what happened. She learns that he is from a very rough background and has no one to take him in when his year in prison is up. After a lot of soul-searching, she invites him to live with her. He is understandably reluctant after what she said to him in the courtroom, but he has gotten to know her a little since then, and she reassures him that it will be all right. And he simply has no where else to go, so he accepts. She raises him as her own.
At the end of the story, Maria asks the now older and healthier, happier, more mature boy if he remembers what she said to him in the courtroom. He says he does. She says, “I did kill the boy who killed my son. You are no longer that boy.”
Oh, my, it is a moving story! Olga tells it in a completely believable way.
Olga told us afterwards that it is based on a true story and that her monologue had its genesis in a newspaper article, a dream, and a TV show. Olga read in the newspaper about a woman who had taken into her home the young gang member that had killed her only son. Olga thought at the time that it would make a good storytelling piece, but she didn’t do anything with it. A little later, Olga dreamed of the words “I will kill you!” on a movie marquee. And a little while after that, there was a woman on Oprah’s television show (I don’t remember if it was the same woman from the newspaper article) whose son had been killed by a gang member and who was talking about her path to forgiveness.
Olga took all of these inputs to her writing group and over time worked them into a written story, which she then developed into the powerful performance piece that we got to hear.
Nepantla: Between Oral Tradition Storytelling and Theatre
The house lights were fairly low, so from the beginning the evening felt more like a theatrical event to me than a storytelling event, but I enjoy both, so I didn’t mind. I think the lines between platform storytelling shows and solo theatre shows often blur, anyway. Many performance artists live in nepantlas of form.
What makes or breaks a professional storytelling event for me beyond the storyteller’s crafting ability is her (or his) here-and-now, intimate connection to her audience. In the first half of the evening, Olga engaged her audience directly and effectively as herself (no theatrical fourth wall.) In the second half of the evening, even though she was performing a first-person monologue as a character named Maria Chavez, the fourth wall was still down, and Olga’s connection to us in the audience was still warmly and fully made.
Other examples of nepantlas of form: In the storytelling segment, Olga incorporated bits of recorded music into her telling along with various casual dance steps. (Sound and lights run by IHC employee Don Drennen.) In the theatre monologue segment, Olga incorporated eye contact and an approach to sentence patterns that directly engaged the audience. (An example might be “Do you know what I mean?” although I don’t remember for sure if Olga used that exact pattern.)
Olga didn’t wear a costume, but she was dressed up in what I interpreted as a sign of respect for her audience and her art form. She wore a dressy black pants-and-top outfit under a gorgeous, cut-velvet, ruby-red shawl at first. During intermission she replaced the heavy shawl with a lighter, filmier red overblouse. Large, gold, hoop earrings flashed from her ears.
“Nepantla: Between Two Worlds” by Olga Loya was a one-night only event. Bob Sander was the MC. Signing for the hearing impaired was provided on stage by Joyce Ettinger.
This was the last program in the 2009-2010 season of the Printing Partners Storyellers Theater co-produced by Storytelling Arts of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society. I don’t think the 2010-2011 season has been announced yet. However, the door prize at the Olga Loya event was a pair of tickets to next season’s first program: a storytelling concert by Donald Davis and Carmen Deedy that will take place some time in the fall. I have heard that Carmen Deedy is an amazing storyteller, but she has twice stood me up (me and the rest of the audience) and I have yet to hear her tell, so I’ll believe that part of the billing when I see her actually standing on our stage.
However, I could listen to “just” Donald Davis for weeks and weeks and he is as reliable as the sun, so I am looking forward to that no matter what.
‘See you at the theatres!
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
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