The wisdom of bodies, on stage

January 19, 2013

Our bodies store all kinds of knowledge and information, whether it’s an old knee injury that flares up when it rains, muscles that develop their own memory, or the healing touch of a loved one. 

The members of Chicago’s Neighborhood Writing Alliance know this. For the last half year, the non-profit group – which helps adults in underserved neighborhoods write, publish and perform their own stories – has been focused on the topic of “body wisdom.” It’s the theme of the forthcoming issue of their publication, The Journal of Ordinary Thought, and of a performance they staged back in December at Chicago Public Library. (More on that in a minute.)

You can think of body wisdom, loosely, as what our bodies know, although the NWA staged many brainstorming sessions and discarded many giant pads of white paper trying to come up with a shared definition, according to programming director Rachael Hudak.

“There were different interpretations of what wisdom is and where it comes from, whether [it comes from] your ancestors, the house you grew up in, or physical interactions with your environment,” she said in an interview.

These conversations led the group to some powerful, but often uncomfortable, places. Not all of the meanings carried by our bodies are pleasant or pain-free, nor are the judgments others can bring to our physical selves.

“I could definitely see writers at the start of the workshops being shy writing about particular issues – illness and terminal cancer, weight issues and unemployment,” Hudak said. “I don’t think [these issues] felt safe to present on stage.”

But, she said, that changed as they talked and collaborated more and worked with storytelling artist Glenda Zahra Baker to plan their December performance.  

For that event, Hudak and her colleagues created a mash-up of the work submitted by participating writers, then assigned lines to people who hadn’t written them. That created a group identity and support structure, which Hudak thinks helped the participants build confidence.

“People talked about being judged as fat and not feeling comfortable in their bodies,” she said. “They felt incredibly brave to be up on stage talking about that and to have 12 writers around [them] supporting that.”

You can hear and excerpt of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s “Body Wisdom” performance in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. The Neighborhood Writing Alliance performed at an event presented by Chicago Public Library in December of 2012. Performers included Pennie Brinson, Baba Tony Brown, Debra Brown, Kucha Brownlee, Helena Marie Carnes-Jeffries, Robert Hare, Alfred Klinger, Allen McNair, Jeanette Moton, David Nekimken, Donna Pecore, Tinamaria Penn, Phyllis Roker, Delores Tolliver and Sharon Warner. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.