Oral history becomes performance art
For many thousands of years, cultural storytelling traditions have united generations through the wisdom and oral histories passed down from elders.
In the 21st century, a D.C. theater group is drawing on the same ritual in order to help teach older and younger people how to better understand and communicate with each other.
The multigenerational, multiracial Double Nickels Theatre Company produces performances in a style called “reminiscence theatre.” The genre helps to connect ages and cultures through older adults’ tales of their pivotal life points.
Antoinette Ford, Double Nickels’ founder and president, based the concept for the theatre company on her own upbringing in a close-knit family of mixed generations and races. All members lived in the Philadelphia area and visited frequently, sharing stories that reinforced their bonds and provided perspective on each other.
“I loved them dearly, and that was where my real education came from,” Ford said. A senior herself, forming Double Nickels allowed Ford to revisit the meaningful family connections of her earlier years. “I missed the stories, and I loved the memories.”
The Double Nickels name stems from a slang term referring to the age of 55, when older adulthood is often considered to begin, Ford said.
More than nostalgia
Older people who enjoy telling stories about their pasts are often pegged as “nostalgia buffs,” Ford said, when in fact they have significant current insight to share. “These people have something that they can tell you and they can teach you.”
Such tales provide limitless content for Double Nickels’ theatrical productions, she said, and can help to connect people in ways that are often lost in the design of the modern world. Sparking conversations with topics of shared interest is key.
“Because we are such a big country and we try to do so much,” she said, “the price is the loss of intimacy and the loss of real neighborhoods that those of us who are seniors still remember.”
Productions mounted by the volunteer-run company generally involve eight to 10 stories performed for an audience averaging about 200 people of all ages. Three major shows are presented each year, along with occasional special events.
Smaller programs include a “Seniors Poetry Slam” and “The Elders Speak Salon,” where the oral histories presented are videotaped and saved for possible future use in larger shows.
Roslyn Johnson, 44, is program manager for Double Nickels’ partnership with the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC), where some of the theatre company’s performances are held.
“You never really know how talented people are until you give them a chance to showcase that talent,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be a part of an organization that encourages people to come out and share their memories. It gives them an opportunity to bridge some of the cross-generational gaps.”
The volunteer performers come from throughout the Washington area and include residents of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, who are also included in compilations of recorded stories.
Floyd Parks, 66, serves as videographer for Double Nickels and is responsible for archiving the life stories told by the performing seniors.
“I’m getting a perspective on how other people have lived and what they’ve done in their lives,” Parks said. “You can never really know what a person has endured and what they’ve gone through” until someone tells you.
At the 100th National Cherry Blossom Festival last year, 10 Double Nickels’ performers over the age of 90 presented life stories. Six of them were past the age of 100. Double Nickels performed in the 2013 festival this April as well.
This Memorial Day weekend the group plans to collect stories from the Buffalo Soldiers Bikers Group, made up of African-American Vietnam Vets motorcycle enthusiasts.
In addition to its stage performances, the theatre company provides other means of expression for the seniors who participate in its programming. Original music, published reminiscences, and artistic renderings have also allowed creative outlets for sharing life histories.
In a new effort to support inter-generational communication and understanding, Double Nickels launched a free program to help teach the use of social media to older adults who can use the training to stay in touch more conveniently with younger family members and friends.
“Seniors Going Social” is a new program at the Armed Forces Retirement Home and the Francis Gregory Library in Southeast Washington. New classes will begin in May. Over the course of a 20-week period, participants will learn to use basic social media programs such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
Operation of smartphones, iPads and desktop computers will also be included in the training, and high school-age volunteers will work one-on-one with participants to provide additional tutorials.
The theatre group is also taking to the airwaves with a television program on DCTV, the public programming channel. “Double Nickels: Act III” focuses on a wide range of ages and help broaden the mission of the organization by reaching out to the home audience. Plans are also afoot to take the program national after its DC launch has been established.
The “Act III” portion of the TV program’s name reflects that the people represented are in their “third act” of life. “You know, you are still on your stage and it is the final act, which is usually the most exciting,” Ford explained.
The show can also be viewed on YouTube at www.youtube.com/user/DoubleNickelsDC/feed.
Producer Jerry Paris, 57, believes the new show is an opportunity to fill a void he sees existing in much of the reality TV genre. “Meaningful content can fill up the gaps that reality programs are usually not meeting,” he said. “Our mission is to provide meaningful content, particularly to seniors.”
As the participating performers explore their own lives in the course of preparing to tell their stories, Paris said the relationship between performers and producers is one of shared benefit.
“It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship in that, as we are interviewing seniors for the program, we are helping them to recall their most important and meaningful moments.”
Musician and vocalist Igwe Bandele, 58, is providing voice-over work and original music for the TV production. “To be able to work with seniors, to enlighten them and be enlightened by them” is the most rewarding aspect of his involvement in Double Nickels’ mission, he said. “It’s because of the history they carry with them — that’s where the wisdom comes from.”
The Double Nickels Theatre Company office is at 1901 Mississippi Ave., SE, Suite 206, Washington D.C. For more information on the organization’s activities, and opportunities for volunteering and performing, call (843) 636-3863, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.doublenickels.org.