Saturday, March 30, 2002


Life as art breaks boundaries

        Jessica Spears was so nervous she could feel her head overheating. But she wasn't going to quit now; she had waited five hours for this moment.

        With all eyes upon her, Jessica began to read.

        “She smiles through a thousand tears,

        and harbors adolescent fears,

        She dreams of all

        she could never be ...”

        Not bad for a 17-year-old with a troubled history. Ms. Spears' parents are not in her life, and just a few years ago, she got kicked out of school for fighting and spent time in juvenile detention, she says.

        Now she's pursuing her GED at Northside Community School. And last week, she hung around for five hours after classes finished, waiting to participate in a storytelling performance.

        “I'm just trying to do the best I can to be somebody,” Jessica told the audience after reading her poem.

        As applause filled the room, she fanned her burning face and smiled.

On the stage

        Last week, the Urban Appalachian Council brought together GED students in East Price Hill and Northside with two professional storytellers, Rema Keen and Omope Carter-Daboiku.

        Both are from Appalachia, although Ms. Carter is black and Ms. Keen white. The GED students had similar backgrounds.

        I tend to be skeptical of “cultural exchanges.” Do real people participate in these events, I wonder, or are they mainly paycheck opportunities for underemployed artists?

        The answer always surprises me. Yes, people take part. Almost unconsciously, they mine their lives for art, and what they find has the sharp tang of truth.

        Over three days, the two talked about memories and family traditions. Then they gathered in Northside to share stories from the stage, with about 60 friends and relatives in the audience.

        There was Jessica with her poem and 15-year-old Chai Mumchuck with an original song.

        Brenda Jackson, 26, told about her childhood. Her father, she says, “gave me to my grandfather for Christmas one year.”

        Grandpa made her sing in front of everyone at a country church. Her mother came to see her, and as Ms. Jackson tells it:

        “She said, "Do you want to come home?' And I said, "Yeah, yeah.'

        “And she came and got me, I guess, about a year later.”

        Monica Bishop, 33, held an empty picture frame around her face and challenged the audience to see her as she was — a wife, mother of four, GED student and full-time worker.

        Ted Clark, 44, shared a tall tale involving a casket. And Audrey Plair, 60, reminisced about raising her own hen at the age of 7, only to learn the family was having it for dinner.

        The audience laughed and clapped and bounced children on their knees.

        Afterward, they tried to fill out a survey for the sponsoring agencies. But the first question — “Was the audience diverse?” — proved a bit confusing.

        That sort of thing hadn't occurred to anybody. They were just people having a good time together.

        “What does diverse mean?” Ms. Jackson asked.

        A relative shrugged. “I don't know,” she replied.

       Contact: (859) 578-5584 or


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