“I sat in this window. I watched these little kids get old. And I seen the old people get older. Yeah, sure, some of them don’t like us, but most of them do. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Pino, they grew up on my food. On my food. And I’m very proud of that. Oh, you may think It’s funny, but I’m very proud of that. Look, what I’m trying to say, son, is, uh… Sal’s Famous Pizzeria is here to stay.”
– Sal, Do the Right Thing, written by Spike Lee
I recall a pre-Starz! series on Encore call The Directors, in which famous film-makers would discuss their work as talking heads. I find myself now remembering Barry Levinson discussing his 1990 film Avalon and how it was acclaimed for its portrayal of “the immigrant experience”. The film, set in the 1950s during the widespread adoption of television, centers on a Polish Jewish family and the stories they’re told from their raconteur grandfather.
“It has nothing to do with the immigrant experience,” said Levinson of his film. “It’s about the death of the storyteller.” He explained that the story of the film is how someone who tells stories has his position usurped by a shiny new piece of technology.
I can only wonder how Levinson or his character would respond to Aurora Theatre’s “local premiere” or Dael Orlandersmith’s Stoop Stories. It is, after all, a solo play in which our nameless narrator (Jeunée Simon) tells stories about being told stories live and in-person. Yet, a certain global pandemic has made Aurora cautious about re-opening their doors audiences eager to digest such stories. Hence the production’s release via streaming-only.
What’s more, the play is told from the point-of-view of someone watching the world change around them as they barely have time to catch up. One moment, the place you took for granted is where it always was; the next moment, it’s gone and replaced that sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the rest of the mainstay décor.
That’s the sort of delicate sense memory we see on the face of our narrator as they enter Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s intricately detailed set. Having never been to New York myself, my only reference for its signature “stoops” is what I’ve seen in film, television, and in photos. Based on that alone, I can at least say that it’s a tribute to Wong-Westbrooke’s skills that the set has a genuine weather-beaten look to it that makes one wish its brick walls could talk. (Coupled with Jon Tracy’s focused lights, the camerawork rarely reveals the Aurora’s seats that would otherwise break the illusion.)
Indeed, our narrator seems to be often speaking for the walls themselves. The stories told include that of an old Jewish man who survived The Holocaust to witness the self-destructive magic of Billie Holliday first-hand. They include a girl whose idea of sexuality was constantly measured against that of another girl who was eventually defined by nothing but said sexuality. There are stories of an over-the-hill Black rocker, a pair of teenage groupies who are vilified and envied at the same times, and a female friend of the narrator’s who winds up “a great-grandmother at 48”.
These characters are all “dirty” in the sense that you can’t imagine mainstream America portraying their stories on a regular basis. That’s what gentrifiers never understand: removing the “dirt” from the area they’ve colonized is removing that which makes it unique – any geologist will tell you that; it’s why they take soil samples first. The people and places spoken of here are imperfect, which is what makes them so appealing.
Particularly when told by Jeunée Simon, a top-notch talent with whom I’ve worked on several occasions. Whether by instruction or by happenstance, Simon makes sadness the connective tether with all of her characters here. If it’s true that one hasn’t lived until they’ve had their heart broken, then the characters our narrator meets have each lived several lifetimes at once. Were we able to see these characters in the flesh, the unifying physical trait would likely be a collection of scars.
Yet, for all the life Orlandersmith breathes into these characters, it often feels overwhelming. The script could very much use an editor – not to streamline or eliminate any of the stories (the show already runs a brisk hour-15), but to at least trim some of the excess fat. Granted, that’s what happens with raconteurs: when they get on a roll there’s little stopping them. Still, it occasionally gets to a point where the storytellers are talking just to hear themselves speak.
Having said that, the production makes for a fine transitional step from Aurora’s pandemic audio plays (of which Simon took part) to their eventual return to welcoming live audiences again. Parts of the play make one recall a scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which Kim Novak’s Madeleine tries to track her life against the lifespan of a tree. In reality, all life is just as brief. We should all be so lucky as to have someone tell our tale once we’ve shuffl’d on.
Stoop Stories is scheduled to run until the 3rd of October on the Aurora Theatre website.
The show runs 1 hour and 15 minutes with no pre-programmed intermission.
For streaming access and show information, please visit the production’s official site here.