East Garfield Park resident Bettina Van Pelt doesn’t consider herself to be a shy.
For her, performing on stage is a way to express herself. And she couldn’t wait to take the stage on June 7 at Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park where she planned to recite a story about her “journey of my love of music.”
“I like performing,” said Van Pelt, who enjoys open-mic poetry. “I am really a quiet person, and I find that performing gives me more of myself. I’m more freer. I feel like it’s necessary for my soul.”
Last Friday’s performance at Inspiration Kitchens, 3504 W Lake St., was the culmination of the six-week program that allowed community residents to tell their stories on stage set to music. The Stories and Music program offered writing workshops for community residents. Sponsored by Chicago West Community Music Center and 2nd Story, the program aims to bring out the griot in West Side residents.
Residents over the six weeks received intensive instruction on writing, character development, scene setting and structure from 2nd Story writing coaches.
Chicago West Community Music Center hosted the workshops; its students working with participants to set their stories to music. The June 7 show featured mostly autobiographical stories, like Van Pelt’s. A four-course meal prepared by Inspiration Café was served up after the performance.
According to Howard Sandifer, the music center’s executive director, setting stories to music enhances the story-telling experience, similar to the way music is used in film and theater.
Funded by the Chicago Community Trust, the program helped teach youth about scoring music for film, theater or commercials. The residents performing were coached onstage by a theatrical director.
But the larger goal, says Sandifer, is to bring live performance art to the West Side while reintroducing the oral tradition of storytelling to African Americans. That tradition dates back centuries, especially with the griots — storytellers who traveled from village to village sharing the African experience.
“It’s vital that we listen to each other as human beings, but particularly that we have a voice and that we have an opportunity to express ourselves,” Sandifer said, noting that residents’ stories range from funny to serious.
2nd Story’s Bobby Biedrzycki also hopes the program and experience will help blacks capitalize on their rich tradition of storytelling. Residents, he said, are already telling stories when they gather around the dinner table or visiting family. Bringing that experience into a classroom setting is another goal, Biedrzycki stressed.
“It is just a matter of taking what you are already doing and sharpening it for performance,” he said.
Renetta Gunn-Stevens, 35, knew the program was right for her when a co-worker invited the Bensenville resident to a March performance. Gunn-Stevens says she has a story to tell, and “this would be the place to teach me how to share it and tell it the right way.”
She recalls a bad relationship and how she spent “307,000 minutes” in this relationship her parents introduced her to. But the relationship, she explained, isn’t what people think.
“That’s gonna be the shock value,” Gunn-Stevens said. “That’s my goal, to make them think the whole story … is about a guy that I gave all these minutes to” but it’s not.”