ST. PETERSBURG – Your Real Stories, a theatrical/journalism production team found inspiration from the book/movie “The Help” to create an outlet for St. Pete residents to share their own stories of real life struggle, segregation, diversity and victory with others of different backgrounds in the community.
Last Thurs., Aug. 27, co-creators Dr. Lillian Dunlap and Jaye Sheldon welcomed about 100 attendees to the third, since its 2015 debut in June, “This is my city: St. Pete Stories.” In partnership with the City of St. Petersburg, the event took place at Lake Vista Recreation Center where the crowd more than doubled from July’s event.
The Your Real Stories team went out into the community and gathered interviews with people in their homes, scripted their stories and hired professional actors to bring their experiences to life.
“We give the scripts to actors, create evenings of theater and we use that for a jumping off point to talk across difference,” explained Sheldon. “What we have often found is we don’t have a common language, and lots of times the way that neighborhoods are divided, the way that we function in the world sometimes encourages separateness, and so there is some lacking in communications, and this is an attempt to have real, open genuine conversations.”
People are very complex, and relationships among people are even more complex. Your Real Stories production team has learned through the work of this project that speaking to all parties in a story gives a bigger perspective and a fuller story instead of viewing an experience through only one set of eyes.
After the stories are presented by the actors, attendees seated at tables are guided by a facilitator to discuss what the stories personally triggered for them and to share similar or polar opposite experiences of what the person from the story experienced.
The professional actors hired for this production prepare weeks in advance. They listen to three to four hours of audio from the real person sharing their life’s experiences. The actors then research more about that person’s culture so that they could fully understand and be able to express that person’s pains, doubts, views on the world and accomplishments.
“It was so inspiring when I got to watch his interview,” said actor Jesse Carolan-Rodriguez who performed “Love Supreme, the Andre Reyes’s Story.”
Reyes moved from Puerto Rico to St. Petersburg just after his 10th birthday. He became aware of his race right away when he was called a “spic.” He became guarded and retreated into books, which has shaped the person who he is today.
He was in high school during the time of the Tyron Lewis incident, and one of his teachers organized a roundtable discussion. From that experience he built a lot of lasting friendships. He learned to deal with the individual and not lump a whole race of people into a box.
Reyes began to seek his spiritual side, and once he turned 18 he moved explored different religions. At one point he did Zen retreats, became an Orthodox Rastafarian and even became a cook at a Hindu Temple.
Reyes does not identify with just one culture. There is something from every part of the world that has touched his heart in one way. This is the legacy he leaves to his daughter, and hopes that others will do the same.
“If more people sought to leave a legacy like that with their little ones, things would change for the better. It wouldn’t have a choice,” said Carolan-Rodriguez through the words of Reyes.
“Worth Saving, the Eddie Pelham Story” was performed by actor Cranstan Cumberbatch. Pelham’s story told of being abandoned by his mother at an early age, watching his father abuse his mom, being a crack addict by age 14, being unexpectedly contacted by his mother over the phone as he served a 25-year prison sentence and finding God.
“The part of the story that was written, it sounds really terrible, and it was a terrible situation in my life. But that’s not the end of my story,” said Pelham referring to his work with at-risk children. “Even though we make mistakes in life, God is still graceful and merciful…God is still working on me.”
“Refuge, the Jasmina Kuljanac Story” was performed by actor Yvonne Misiak. Her story started out in the former Yugoslavia, moved on to Croatia, Poland, Germany and ended up in St. Pete. Her story encompassed growing up during a civil/religious war where Christians, Orthodox Christians and Muslims were locked in battle.
Being from an interfaith household, her family eventually fled, and with each new country came new challenges. In Germany she experience racism. Having dark hair, olive skin and brown eyes didn’t mesh well with Germany’s view of beauty: Blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin.
By the time she made it to St. Pete, she was well beyond her 15 years. Kuljanac had the tools to protect herself and refused to become a victim.
“Everybody has a different pathway. Those are the very things that make you mature and make you strong, otherwise there is no way you could have been. It’s like a mission impossible,” Kuljanac said through the actor.
“St. Pete Stories offer a glimpse into the real lives of people we don’t know, shatter our casual first impressions about who people are and reward us profoundly by simply adding to our own story,” said Dr. Dunlap. “These are the things that bridge the gaps between people. When I listen to your story, I can’t un-know it and I can’t deny the human connection made just by hearing you speak.”