“Welcome to ladies’ night at the Moth!” exclaims host Peter Aguero, kicking off this one-off collaboration between the famed storytelling series and veteran NPR producers The Kitchen Sisters. A buzzing audience is packed into an intimate wood-paneled theater inside a townhouse on the edge of Manhattan’s Gramercy Park. The Greek Revival mansion has been home to the members-only Players’ Club, a haven for actors and their acolytes, since 1888, and its walls are stacked with portraits of stars and spear-carriers from founder Edwin Booth’s day to today. Having been closed to women for over a century (before admitting Helen Hayes as a member in 1989), the club might not seem like an obvious venue for a night dedicated to “The Hidden World of Girls.” But as Moth artistic director Catherine Burns points out, the night’s curators, the Kitchen Sisters, are used to blazing a trail for women through unabashed boys’ clubs like radio broadcasting.
Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva have worked together since 1979. As the Kitchen Sisters, they have produced several acclaimed storytelling series and oral history projects, including “Hidden Kitchens” and the Sonic Memorial Project, about the history and destruction of the World Trade Center. Their NPR series “The Hidden World of Girls” turns a spotlight on “girls and the women they become,” gathering and presenting stories from all over the world that reveal women’s “coming of age, rituals, rites of passage, and secret identities.”
Introducing the Moth evening on April 17, Nelson and Silva relate the story of the girl who inspired the series. Lula Mae Hardaway was born to Alabama sharecroppers at the depth of the Depression, and passed around various relatives until she was forced into an abusive marriage, from which she eventually escaped to Detroit with her children. Her youngest boy was blind but blessed with a miraculous voice, and Lula Mae eventually shared credit for several of the biggest hits of his Motown career. Most of his fans, however, know nothing at all about the hardships and tenacity of Stevie Wonder’s mother. It’s this kind of story, of reversal and revelation, that defines the work of the Kitchen Sisters as well as the Moth.
On stage, the producers reveal that the idea for their collaboration, which would share stories of women’s secret worlds in a live setting, came from none other than Gloria Steinem, a longtime supporter of the Moth. The collaboration was two years in the making — it takes a surprising amount of planning and practice to make a night of apparently spontaneous storytelling come together. Before the show, Catherine Burns described the delicate balance that goes into curating a successful Moth Mainstage night. Even for a show dedicated to the lives of girls, the organizers aim for a mix of genders among the five performers. But diversity goes beyond gender, ethnicity, age and experience. The aim, says Burns, is a “tapestry of tones” — stories that evoke the funny and frivolous as well as the dark and dangerous. To keep things unpredictable, the producers try to include only one or two professional writers and performers. Comedian Jessi Klein, who kicks off tonight’s event, and host Peter Aguero are both Moth veterans, while Ishmael Beah is best known as the author of the memoir A Long Way Gone. But the other participants are musicians, entrepreneurs and activists, whose twelve-minute stories (time is kept on stage by violinist Emily Bookwalter) weave a tapestry that is witty, surprising, loose, electric, and heartfelt.
For her part, Nikki Silva of the Kitchen Sisters says that she loved the openness and unpredictability of the collaboration with the Moth. She described how as a radio producer, she found it particularly eye-opening to watch stories get shaped in the telling during rehearsal, so that they develop a clear beginning, middle, and end in just over ten minutes. The live rehearsal offered a sharp contrast to how she and Nelson work, imposing their shape on a story after it is told, during the editing process, rather than trusting to the performer on the fly and in the moment.
All the performers were asked to pass on a piece of advice from their mothers, which ranged from “use the good china every day” to the rather more passive-aggressive “you’re going to wear that?” The five stories, too, described experiences both unique and universal, from Jessi Klein’s riotous tale of the hazards of wedding-dress shopping while feminist, to Ishmael Beah’s sweetly understated tribute to his fiercely independent grandmother, her survival through the Sierra Leone civil war, and their eventual reunion. British-born jazz musician Tessa Souter shared the story of discovering the truth of her paternity — and her dark skin — that lay concealed behind her mother’s elaborate, if well intentioned, lies.
On the surface Lynnee Breedlove’s story, told with dry wit and self-conscious drama, is about “Homobiles,” the free ride-share service he runs with his “posse” in San Francisco, to provide a safe ride home to anyone who, because of how they look and what they wear, might find it hard to hail a cab. But Breedlove, a trans man, testifies at the same time to the violence that can erupt when those who do not tick obvious “M” or “F” gender boxes encounter people who, as he puts it, do not like to be confused.
In the final story of the night, Alabama-born designer Natalie Chanin describes her hometown, Florence, as a place she couldn’t wait to escape, where the wildness of nature always threatened to press in against civilization. But after years of wandering, the designer finds herself with a problem that only Florence, once the heart of a booming textile industry can solve: the need for a community of skilled seamstresses to produce her one-off designs. So she finds herself back home, employing the women of her grandmother’s generation who have been passed over by time and technology, and building a creative community that proves to be her own salvation into the bargain.
The twists and revelations in these stories are all in some way about finding family and coming home, wherever home might be, and whoever makes up a family.
Audio and video recordings of the event will be available from The Moth in the coming days.