My second appearance at Hillary Rea’s long-running storytelling event, Tell Me A Story, was a fun one. The audience was game. The other presenters inspired me to use the word delightful without irony. And I’d taken some of the pressure off of performing directly after a draining work day by deciding I’d read my story, though I knew it well enough to just (insert jazz hands) tell it, and ad-libbed from the heart more than once.
Cherry on the sundae? Hillary, a consummate professional and a woman after my own heart, decided that this year she’d start paying her storytellers because…fairness, integrity, ad nauseam, amen.
Mad props to the colleague who wished me good luck by hoping the audience understood that “that’s how you really talk,” the fellow presenter who tapped into my fear that I would be forced to publicly address my refusal to see either Disney’s Frozen or everyone’s A Christmas Story, and Hillary’s eye-snagging floral Doc Martens.
Here’s what you missed. Yes, this is really how I talk.
Tell Me A Story: Frozen Storytelling Performance at Philadelphia’s Shot Tower Coffee Wednesday, January 16, 2019
It doesn’t matter so much if they’re fictional or happened in real life. But I sometimes die a little inside when stories start off way back when. I had a farm in Africa. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. I usually wind up loving those stories, but those melodramatic and wistful first lines often have me sighing, “Ugh, here we go….”
My story, my current, oh snap, this is happening right now story, starts way back when too, but is a little more prosaic, maybe even slightly boring? Decades ago, I wasn’t colonizing distant lands or discovering my new husband had perhaps murdered the devilish first wife who haunted my every marital hour. A lot of years ago I was eight, nine, who remembers exactly, and I was standing on a stage much smaller than this one. I was also stinking up the joint.
It was a play, one of those elementary school plays that is always unintentionally hilarious, even when everything goes perfectly. I was the star. I was center stage. And I’d forgotten my lines. All of them.
To this day, I’ve never heard a sound louder than the silence of everyone in that auditorium waiting for me to say, well, something, anything. But I never did. And the play went on around me as my classmates shouted all their lines at this unresponsive ghost wearing Garanimals and rocking afro puffs.
So of course, decades later, I decided it was time to become a stand-up comedian.
Me, the person who cringes so hard my back spasms at any meeting where a woman at the front of the room inevitably chirps, “Why don’t we go around the room and introduce ourselves?”
Me, the person with a great memory, who nevertheless hyperventilates at the thought of forgetting what I meant to say on stage and being reduced to a tiny Donald Trumpian vocabulary consisting of words like good, best, fake, sad, all punctuated by a highly inappropriate thumbs up.
I should be crapping in my pants, but instead I’m living by the seat of them, and it’s mostly kind of cool. I had a near death experience a few years back that’s still lingering in my life like a bad smell, and it was the kind of thing that makes you go, “Is it time to take up drinking? Do I want to figure out what bitcoin is? Are orgies finally on the table?”
But if I’m honest, I was stuck, really stuck, like Han Solo frozen in a block of carbonite stuck, long before I got gobsmacked by a colorful life-threatening illness that stole a few years of my life. Stuck in jobs that were either low paying or abusive or both. Stuck keeping my life small because I’ve got bills and shit.
I was and am a big believer in hitting my marks. I believe in being more good than not, and that not being a dick if you can help it is its own reward. I think before I speak and act and fret about how my actions, big and small are going to affect other people. Sure, I’m sassy, I’m contractually obligated to be as a black woman. But mostly, I stay in line, or did before all this shit went down.
‘Cause when you are a black woman, the stakes of not doing so at all times can be disproportionately harsh. I remember getting a flood of phone calls after the presidential election, all from white friends and acquaintances, all of them male, who needed someone to help them make sense of this crazy world “we” were “suddenly” living in. And I told them what they needed to hear and couldn’t bring themselves to say out loud. “You’re just scared because we’re all black women now.”
I’m not sure I needed a baby-sized stress tumor or a baby-talking president to realize it was time to think about ways to get unstuck. I don’t recommend either, but I have to admit they gave my metaphorical swing a big ol’ push.
So I’m in this weird space where everything is chaos and climate change and Kelly Conway and….comedy. Because why not? Deciding to lean into one of your silly by definition passions is a tough argument to make when the sky is almost literally falling. But maybe it’s not that deep.
Get up on stage. Look like a dork as you fumble with the microphone, because man, you’re always fumbling with the microphone.
Don’t tell you mom or your friends you’re doing stand-up, but have them stalk you on social media and suddenly start using words like tight ten and callback and crowd work…apropos of absolutely nothing.
Wonder if your killer bit, the one about kitty cat incest, is right for tonight’s crowd and quickly learn that it isn’t.
Forbid the supportive and easy on the eyes and heart guy friends you’re not romantically involved with from coming to see you just yet. Be unable to decide if it’s because you’re afraid of bombing or looking less than hawt.
Finally watch the candy-colored fantasy that is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and nod in recognition that yeah, stand-up is hard, even when you’re rich and a size four — though you’d really like to test that theory for yourself.
Blush beneath your melanin when people come up to you after a show and tell you you were great. Then blush with shame because you realize you’ve never done the same for other comics, you just somehow assumed they knew, and wow, are you the worst.
Get so distracted by the glittery eyeshadow that guy is wearing that for a second, you forget the words.
Forget everything you were going to say next when a guy in the audience laughs so hard you startle like a baby deer.
Get so flustered when a woman in the front row shouts out a request for skin care tips that you one, look at her in disbelief (is she fucking blind?), and two, forget the words.
Stage dive into other things you’ve secretly wanted to do too, from singing in a community choir and falling in love with the right man at the wrong time to building a tiny house and writing Writer and Comedian on your tax forms. (The IRS will have questions.)
I don’t worry about forgetting because I’m afraid of looking stupid stage. Everyone looks stupid on stage. Deeply stupid with a side of brave. I’m more worried I’ll leave the stage having babbled out something, maybe even something interesting or funny, but not the somethings I most needed to share and say.
Still, I’m doing it. I’m doing all the things. It doesn’t matter that I’m older. It doesn’t matter that I’m tired. I routinely outpace teenagers and hoteps and woke liberals, but sometimes a bitch is tired. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know exactly how it’s going to shake out, if a fascist dictatorship is right around the corner or if that emaciated polar bear is going to crawl past me on Market Street.
It matters that I’m finally being more fully myself. And that I’m finally filling my life with things I love, one of which is just laughter. Lots of loud ass laughter. Even though sometimes I’m living so much in the moment that for a few seconds, I totally forget the words.