Arts group provides African American males with an outlet for sharing stories of resilience

A Super Bowl champion, transsexual male, a grammy winner. These men and several others stood on a Philadelphia stage earlier this summer and told true stories about growing up as black men in America.

They spoke of adversity — such as poverty and the murder of a family member — but also of resilience and success.

In a year when “America saw a lot of images of African American males in handcuffs and in bodybags,” showing other facets of black life is vital, says Jamie J. Brunson, executive director of First Person Arts, the Philadelphia nonprofit that brought the men together for their July performance.

“These stories are more common than we would’ve have imagined — the stories of how males of color are triumphing every day over obstacles,” Brunson says.

The show in July was the first in an ongoing First Person Arts series, “BEyond Expectations: Engaging Males of Color.” The next event in the series will be held on Saturday, Nov. 14, during the nonprofit’s annual storytelling festival. It will include Latinos, Asians, and other men of color, in addition to African Americans.

According to Brunson, the catalyst for “BEyond Expectations” was Arthur C. Evans, commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services (DBHIDS). Evans is a community and clinical psychologist who emphasizes recovery and resilience in social services. He asked First Person Arts to produce an event that would amplify the voices of men of color and promote what he calls “thriving strategies.”

In other words, he wanted to hear restorative narratives — stories that show how people are making a meaningful progression from a place of despair to a place of resilience. DBHIDS is sponsoring the “BEyond Expectations” series and plans to use the conversations it sparks to improve its services for men of color.

To attract storytellers for its previous and upcoming shows, First Person Arts put out calls on the radio and through other media. Individuals were encouraged to pitch a story by phone or email. The organization also invited celebrities, such as Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, of hip-hop band The Roots, to participate.

Jamie Brunson

Stories were selected that showed “what it means to be a male of color” through a range of experiences, says Brunson. The first event featured four everyday Philadelphians and three celebrities. Community storytellers were paid a $250 stipend, and payment for celebrities was negotiated.

As with its other storytelling events, First Person Arts uses any tactics necessary to help the “BEyond Expectations” participants develop their stories, says Brunson. That usually means listening to stories by phone and giving notes, and sometimes workshopping with multiple storytellers. A common part of the process is teaching participants about the arc of a story, and how that differs from an informal narrative, like a journal entry. Storytellers also rehearse their performances with a director before the actual event.

At the “BEyond Expectations” production in July, Brunson witnessed something she hadn’t seen at any prior First Person Arts show: all of the storytellers stood in the wings watching the other performances.

“These guys stayed with each other, patting each other on the back when they finished,” says Brunson.

They weren’t the only ones who were engaged. In a theater of about 400 seats, every seat was occupied and, according to Brunson, the stories “resonated for everyone, not just African American males.” First Person Arts moderated a “talkback” session after the stage stories, and people wanted to keep talking even when it ended, she says. “That’s what I love about the First Person Arts audience. We’re willing to experience a story that may be outside of our comfort zone.”

Stories like that of Christian Axavier Lovehall, who spoke about “passing” as a transsexual male for the first time.

“Being seen as the gender you are, for many transgender people, is an important thing,” Lovehall says in his story. “In my case, it was when the ‘shes’ were replaced with ‘hes.’ But I never really felt that I passed until one night in South Philly.”

Lovehall describes walking home after buying chicken wings and fries at a local shop, when a police wagon pulled on to the sidewalk in front of him.

As Lovehall describes it: “Two cops get out. I ask them, ‘Why am I being stopped?’ I was told I was being stopped because I was jaywalking. That was very strange to me, because everybody in Philadelphia jaywalks. It’s usually how you can tell the Philadelphians from the tourists. … After he told me that, they pushed me down to the ground, put handcuffs on me. … They throw me in the wagon, close the door. It smells like urine, feces, vomit, blood. I’m in there for 30 minutes. When they open the door, they let me out, they uncuff me. They give me three tickets, totaling $360. One for jaywalking, one for not having an updated address on my ID and one for disorderly conduct because my screams disturbed the neighbors. The police then gave me my food back. By then it was cold and I had lost the appetite. But that night I knew that I passed as a black man. I knew also that to protect and serve didn’t necessarily apply to someone who looked like me.”

Another storyteller, Raheem Brock, former defensive end for the Indianapolis Colts, talked about the role football played in exiting poverty.

“(In) high school, people tell you if you’re not getting straight As and Bs, you’re not going to college. So that was beat into my head so much that I just started working at McDonald’s and thinking that’s where I’m gonna be at. … Then I just started putting in the extra work (in football), and I didn’t want to listen to what people told me … I would walk from Germantown to North Philly to work out and train with my friend over the summer. Nobody told me to do it, but I had dreams, I had goals I wanted to achieve.”

Spotlighting stories of resilience isn’t new for First Person Arts. The organization hosts twice-monthly story slams, where audience members share five minute-stories on a particular theme and compete for a $100 prize. At those slams, Brunson says, “There’s no question, at least one storyteller is talking about some kind of trauma or difficulty they overcame.”

Hearing such stories directly from those who experienced them allows for connections that are harder to achieve via news. “People buy each other drinks afterward, or walk over and say, ‘I know where you’re coming from,’ ” says Brunson. It’s a testament to the “deep, deep connection that you can make with a stranger.”

That possibility is at the heart the “BEyond Expectations” series.

“There’s so much mystery around people that don’t look like us or talk like us,” says Brunson. “We have to shatter the myths and mystery and get down to what makes us all human.”

The organization is thinking about the possibility of a tour beyond Philadelphia, according to Brunson. “ continue amplifying this voice.”


Podcasts of the “BEyond Expectations stories from July can be found on the First Person Arts website. Videos of the performances can seen on YouTube.

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