Dignified 

Theater artist J. Noble debuts his oral history Wisdom from Whispers.

It's been just a little over a year since J. Noble, a fresh-faced youngster right out of college, joined Theatre Memphis' staff as director of education and outreach. His first goal in his new position was to reimagine ShoWagon, TM's small but active children's theater company. Founded in the mid-'80s, ShoWagon, Noble thought, had begun to lose freshness and momentum. The renewal process began by bringing in professional storytellers like Memphis' Annie Young McDaniel, who grew up on Mud Island and, at 89-years-old, can speak of a Memphis far different from the one we know today. The children were encouraged to respond to the stories through dance or other means of artistic expression.

"Now we adapt all of our own shows," Noble says, using recent narrative productions of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and Tom Sawyer as examples. His frequent collaborator, actor/singer Kell Christie, adds, "If you want to do good work, you really have to develop your own material, because there's just not a lot of good children's plays out there. So much of it is really bad and condescending."

"I don't want to have my actors dressed up in some kind of giant fish costume," Noble continues, "swimming in the sea of childhood." What Noble hopes to do is meld traditions of both oral and written literature, modern dance, and contemporary performance to tell timeless stories in unique ways. Hopefully, he can educate his audiences as well.

Wisdom from Whispers, Noble's most recent project, which opens on Theatre Memphis' Next Stage this weekend, has very little to do with children. In fact, it is an oral history of the Mid-South as told by a variety of participants from various senior centers. But Wisdom is an extension of the creative voice Noble has begun to develop while working for ShoWagon. It is a direct result of his experience with McDaniel and inspired by dance guru Liz Lerman, whose experiments in movement involve both trained and untrained dancers and stress inclusion -- the blend of ages, sizes, genders, and ethnicities in order to create artworks which directly mirror specific communities. (Lerman's visit to Memphis a few years back has also had an influence on emerging dance groups like Breeding Ground and established experimental companies like Our Own Voice.)

"Annie Young McDaniel, at 89, she just has so much to say, so much to offer. It got me thinking about my grandmother who was a pretty good storyteller too," Noble says. "She had so many stories about her childhood growing up in the Mississippi Delta. And it really hit me what a rich source for interesting stories [seniors] are."

Noble spent 10 months gathering and assembling information. His grand schemes of "workshops" and theater games disintegrated, however, falling victim to the very thing seniors do best: talk. By all accounts, this was a fortunate development.

"They love to talk and tell their stories," Noble says. "But unlike people from our generation, they like to listen. And one person's story or memory would spark another person's story or memory, and that [chain reaction] is reflected in the form [of the play]."

According to Noble, Wisdom from Whispers begins with a chorus of voices calling up memories and responding. As the play grows, it evolves into the life story of two main characters, a husband and a wife who are an amalgamation of the various people Noble interviewed for the project. The story told is a familiar one: Through the changes, ages, good times and bad, family matters most.

Of course, some of the collected voices were stronger than others, and both Noble and Christie admit their particular fondness for a man named Rex, who became the primary inspiration for the husband/father character.

"You know, we thought that older people would have gentle, fond stories. Everybody thinks sex was invented in 1968. But a lot of what we heard [from the seniors] were relatively racy, realistic stories."

"Rex moved here from Seattle," Noble says. "He was born in Seattle but shipped off to Mississippi. He was an illegitimate child, but that's not how he put it. He said, 'That's just what you did to hide your bastards.'"

"He just had this kind of tragic life," Christie continues. "But he says he's really happy now. That's another thing that we heard a lot. Just how many of these people really think that their senior years have been the best part of their lives. It's really encouraging."

Christie has found much of the process encouraging. She lost both parents when she was very young, and according to her, "I never really had the chance to see a woman age. And because of that, I was so afraid of the aging process. But this has really helped to change all of that."

Christie's husband, musician Steven Gary, has composed an original blues song and lullaby to accompany the collected stories of Wisdom from Whispers.

Wisdom from Whispers has already been a success for Noble. He's toured various shorter versions to senior centers for the past year, collecting new stories and gathering new ideas from his audiences along the way. Energized by the project, he has already planned a follow-up.

"In this same slot [on the Next Stage] next season I want to do another oral history. I want to go to senior centers and ask people to tell me the stories they used to tell their children. Some will be familiar stories, some will be things they just made up. But I want to find ways to tell even the old stories through their words."

As has been the case with Wisdom from Whispers, Noble wants to capture the vernacular of a bygone era. "I want it to be [the seniors'] stories," he says, "exactly the way they tell them." n

Showing July 10th-13th.

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