“The Making of Decades of Day Work”


ST. PETERSBURG — “The Making of Decades of Day Work,” a behind-the-scenes look at the popular theatrical series about the people connected to domestic day work, will open on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. at Studio@620, 620 First Ave. S.

The series “Decades of Day Work” focuses on the institution of domestic day work across the decades. There have been four different productions dating from 2011, and each of the shows has been distinct, said Dr. Lillian Dunlap, the artistic director and founder of the Your Real Stories organization, which produces the series.

“Each one features four to six people from the community,” Dunlap explained. “Some are African American, some are white. We have interviewed people, gotten their stories, scripted their stories and then had professional actors to get on the stage and present their stories.”

After the dramatized versions, the storytellers themselves talk about their impressions of hearing their personal stories told and fill in some of the historical context. Studio@620 and the freeFall Theatre in St. Pete have hosted the productions, which have featured such distinguished guest storytellers as Dr. Myra Haley, the widow of acclaimed writer Alex Haley.

“Our mission with ‘Decades of Day Work’ is 1) to tell those stories that are not told, and 2) to engage the community in conversation about the stories,” Dunlap said. “On the 11th we’re doing a presentation that will include some of the original storytellers.”

The evening will feature a live interview with Dunlap and co-creator of the series Jaye Sheldon, and will be conducted by journalist Jaye Ann Terry. Dunlap said they’ll be showing for the first time some of the raw footage from the interviews with the storytellers.

“We’re telling the back story,” she said, “because there as so much we couldn’t include it in the shows.”

The fifth installment of “Decades of Day Work” is scheduled for March 2015, but this upcoming show on Tuesday will mark the first time the creators will present what it has taken to produce the shows, Dunlap said.

“There has been a lot of silence among black families and communities and white families and communities about domestic day work,” she attested, “especially over the decades that we’ve been talking about, from the ‘30s through the 1970s. So what we’ve discovered is that there’s a lot of emotion involved and also a lot of interesting complex relationships that grew among the white families and the black families who were caught in this situation of having domestic day workers when society actually limited the abilities of black women to get jobs anywhere else, and also at a time when there was so much civil unrest.”

Dunlap’s mother was a maid from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Frances Johnson Dunlap would take a train from Gary, Ind. and then board a bus or two before finally arriving at her place of employment, the home of an affluent white family in Chicago. Naturally, Dunlap says she has much empathy for children of women who worked as maids.

“My mother was one of the smartest women I’ve ever known,” she asserted. “She read widely, she loved opera—a good, educated woman. And what I knew for sure was that she was smarter than the people she was working for! So for me that created a bit of resentment as a young person.”

Since employment options were very limited to African-American women decades ago, Dunlap noted that almost all the women that she and Sheldon talked to who worked as domestic maids did it not only to support their families but so their children or even their grandchildren wouldn’t have to someday do it. They urged their children to study hard and go to college as they simply wanted to provide a foundation—if not just a monetary one, at least a spiritual one—to push them through school, Dunlap explained.

Dunlap, who moved to St. Pete in 1999 to join the faculty of the renowned Poynter Institute, was no exception: “My parents made it clear to all of us very early that what we were going to do was stay in school and go to college. There was no question in my family of whether I was going to college or not!”

Dunlap explained that what she and Sheldon aim to do with “The Making of Decades of day Work” is “pull the curtain back on the process,” and present what they’ve encountered during their interviews. Since Dunlap is African American and Sheldon is white, Dunlap said that they, as the creators of the series, are in effect who they are talking about.

Some of the stories deal with what many African Americans had to accept as a part of daily life in the decades before Civil Rights, like the mother of storyteller Alonza Wade, who worked as a maid in Miami Beach.

“It was at a time when black people couldn’t be on Miami Beach unescorted,” Dunlap explained. “He talked about how his mother had to take a bus to the beach, get off that bus, show some special kind of identification at a checkpoint, get back on the bus, go another way, get off that bus, then somebody from the employer’s house would have to meet her and then drive her to the house.”

As a young man growing up in Miami, Wade himself witnessed firsthand some of the painful experiences that African American men endured. Some were cases of “reckless eyeballing,” in which a white woman only had to accuse a black man of looking at her inappropriately for an officer to take the law swiftly into his hands and mete out corporal punishment to the accused offender.

“According to our storyteller Wade, he witnessed that as a boy. The police just beating boys and men accused of ‘reckless eyeballing,’” Dunlap said.

Other storytellers recalled the era of the “sundown towns,” Dunlap said, where African Americans were not permitted to be anywhere within a particular city’s environs after sundown.

“One of our storytellers tells about how her family owned a motel on Madeira Beach,” she said. “Black people had to be off the beach by sundown. Out of the area. By sundown you couldn’t be there; that was against the law.”

Dunlap said that since the audiences at the productions tend to be all ages, she and Sheldon have discovered that it has become a way for young people to learn about an era that they could never have experienced on their own.

“A lot of younger people don’t have any idea about all that the storytellers went through!” Dunlap said.

For years, many of the families simply didn’t revisit these experiences and relationships, be it because of guilt on the part of the white families or shame on the part of the African American families. But once they unburdened themselves to Dunlap and Sheldon, they were surprised that these long-suppressed memories still had the power to move them.

“We’ve been able to probe a little bit and many times they’ve told us things that they haven’t told anybody,” Dunlap said. “And in many instances it becomes emotional for them in a way that they didn’t anticipate because they’ve never talked about it.”

Dunlap said she and Sheldon keep in close contact with the storytellers that they’ve interviewed, and many of them have become like extended family to them.

Furthermore, many of the storytellers have had the chance to meet each other and some have even discovered that they had actually known one another as youngsters.

“There have been all these connections that have happened just because of the stories people are willing to tell,” Dunlap said. “And there is no shortage of stories. So we’re committed to keep telling the stories.”

For information on “The Making of Decades of Day Work,” contact Studio@620 at (727) 895-6620 or visit thestudioat620.org.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger

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