By Patsy Isenberg and Jan Worth-Nelson
Perhaps the biggest stories of all about last Thursday’s performances of “The Moth” storytelling show at the Capitol Theater weren’t about “The Moth” at all. There are at least four other options:
- That the performance was in the Capitol Theater, spectacularly renovated and gleaming since its $37 million facelift and December opening.
- That the performance sold out—all 1,600 seats filled.
- That downtown Flint on a beautiful late spring evening was full of walkers, diners, café lingerers and color—from the Weather Ball to the lit-up Saginaw Street arches.
- That there actually was a traffic jam getting out of the downtown flat lot.
The theater, its ceiling stars sparkling, received its capacity crowd well, though the arrangements of the seats puts viewers directly behind the person in front of them, making it difficult to see the stage if the rows are crowded. One wonders why the rows were not angled for a better chance of comfortable viewing.
But of course, the main event and the catalyst for the big crowd was the arrival in town of the popular National Public Radio (NPR) radio show “The Moth Radio Hour,” here in the city for the first time. It was co-sponsored by The Whiting, manager of the Capitol; and by Michigan Radio.
The show features talented, non-professional storytellers who share their own true stories on stage without notes. The stories generally revolve around a common theme, and Thursday’s theme, perhaps selected just for the city attempting to recover from its latest journey into crisis, was “Bound and Determined.”
Five people told their stories: two men, two women, and one 16-year old girl from Chicago. All the stories were quite riveting—covering a fire fighting drama, a foster care heart-wrencher, an encounter with an evil mime, a shooting, and a face down with a bear after a marital crisis.
Despite the serious messages that came through, the tellers relied on generous doses of humor as well and were polished in their pacing and delivery. The audience frequently burst into applause and laughter for each storyteller.
Moth emcee Dan Kennedy, a New Yorker, noted he and the crew had had dinner at Cork on Saginaw and had toured the Flint Farmers’ Market, where they were wowed by the Flint friendliness they encountered — for a New Yorker, rare and almost unnerving, he joked.
Kennedy, the author of several books and a frequent guest lecturer around the country, said he began his long relationship with “The Moth” as a storyteller himself 15 years ago. He told his own stories, including one describing his encounter with a surprising chicken farmer at the Farmers’ Market unimpressed by his “Moth” credentials.
First up was Monte Montepare, a mountain guide who grew up in Breckenridge, Colorado. His story took place in Alaska where he has also lived and worked. Montepare related his experience of a bear encounter on the heels of a mentally-devastating breakup of his two-year marriage on their second anniversary. He obviously survived the near bear near-attack. But barely. The story was both funny and riveting.
Next up was Talaya Moore, from New York City, a recent college graduate, plus-size model, and YouTube Personality. She told the story of a childhood homeless experience and the comfort she received from her small, but beloved Bratz doll collection.
At one point her dolls were stolen and she both humorously and effectively illustrated how important a toy can be to a child who is in an insecure situation. Moore’s “bound and determined” moment happened the day before Christmas when she was nine. She was waiting for overnight placement when bags of gifts arrived for the kids. Moore spotted her favorite Bratz doll in a bag and was determined to obtain that as her gift. She did, but more drama ensued.
Sivad Johnson, a Detroit firefighter for 24 years and is an artist and a father, described one of the most dangerous firefighting and rescue experiences he’d managed to survive. Johnson also explained to the audience how numerous fires are in Detroit.
He said one year in the mid-80s near the start of his fire-fighting career there were over 800 fires during the three days prior to Halloween. As Flint residents well know, that was the start of Devil’s Night – a challenge and danger each year in Detroit and Flint both. Johnson said he comes from a family of firefighters and is passionate about his calling.
Phyllis Marie Bowdwin, another New Yorker who is an acclaimed artist and writer, told a story from 1979 about a couple of mimes and the inappropriate “entertainment” they were providing for outdoor diners across the street from her office building one afternoon. Since this was 1979, the “metoo” movement was in the distant future. The mimes got laughs from the crowd by practically molesting women right out in the open for tips.
But Bowdwin, who fell victim to one of the humiliating assaults, was not having it. She tells how she came back and resisted them with pepper spray. Receiving a mix of laughs and cheers from the audience, she said made up her mind to show them who was boss and chased them off despite their size and strength, staring them down with eyes that said, “Kill the Mime!” She said “that day I was prepared to die, only I wouldn’t be leaving the planet alone!” Bowdwin was bound and determined.
Journey Jamison, a 16-year-old young woman from Chicago, was the last to tell her story. She addressed the timely theme of community involvement to curb and assist urban gun violence victims. She described how just after she’d been trained in first aid for gunshot wounds, she heard gunshots while alone in her apartment one night and was surprised by a victim banging on her door asking for help.
She went to work on him, but got attitude from the police and paramedics (when they finally got there) questioning her qualifications and shooing her away from the man. But she’d had time to literally save the victim’s life and later met him again. She ended up working to train others, including that man’s entire family. Jamison proudly reminded the audience that her generation is not just the future, but the now.
In addition to the storytellers and the host was a talented and experienced violinist, Natalie Frakes from Oxford Community Schools. Frakes was on stage the entire time with her violin to play long or short bursts from her instrument to alert the storytellers if they approached their time limit. This didn’t happen of course. The show is well-rehearsed. But Frakes entertained the audience with a longer piece at the opening and as they streamed back in from intermission. Her energetic playing signaled the start of the second half and Frakes received a rousing round of applause.
More About The Moth
“The Moth” also presented a “StorySLAM” on June 8 at the Sloan Museum, the night after The Capitol Theater performance. This is a time when you put your name in a hat and random people are selected to tell a story lasting five minutes.
The Moth produces more than 500 live shows each year and also runs storytelling workshops for high school students and adults in underserved communities through their Education and Community Programs. According to their website, podcasts of “The Moth Radio Hour” are downloaded over 47 million times a year. The show is broadcast weekly on local NPR stations through Michigan Radio here in this state.
These stories were both entertaining and inspiring, supporting the online claim, “Moth shows are renowned for the great range of human experience they showcase.”
“The Moth Radio Hour” is broadcast on local Michigan Radio stations at noon and 8 p.m. on Saturdays throughout the year.
EVM arts reviewer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.