Storytales: John Edgar Wideman With an Inglish Beat

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John Anson Ford Amphitheater

“I have a belly brain,” says WordTheatre artistic director Cedering Fox, “and when I’m really connecting to something my belly goes nuts.” Fox is explaining her passion for what she does over the phone. It’s contagious. My tummy begins to flutter. She cherishes the spoken word and the way universal stories share what it is to be human. So she creates theater from actors reading contemporary short stories.

“I get these wonderful writers and their stories, and I cast great actors doing the reading,” she explains. “I direct the actors, and they bring the stories to life so it is the most magical, simplest, purest form of theater — just storytelling.”

John Edgar Wideman

On Saturday, October 6, at the Ford Amphitheatre, WordTheatre presents Storytales, featuring the latest work of John Edgar Wideman, recited by a list of aurally recognizable talent, including Keith David, Dennis Haysbert, Marla Gibbs, Roger Guenveur Smith, and Lynn Whitfield.

Fox started WordTheatre 10 years ago. The nonprofit is dedicated to keeping language and literature alive. “And we do that by getting the best writers of short stories in the English-speaking world,” declares Fox.

Wideman is a one-time Rhodes scholar, recipient of a MacArthur genius grant and the first writer to earn the PEN/Faulkner fiction award twice. He is also a tenured English professor at Brown University and now a dear friend to Fox.

Fox had her first brush with Wideman in New York in 2009, when she directed Lynn Whitfield reading one of his stories. “James Franco had just read a story by Jim Shepard. Julianna Margulies had read a story by Amy Hempel. The third story, Lynn reads, and after everyone had been blown away by the first two stories, everybody just went, ‘Oh my god’. I got my first $5,000 donation right after that.”

Fox got wind of Wideman’s Briefs two years ago. “I got my hands on Briefs, which was about to come out,” she says. “I got the manuscript. It’s really short stories. The shortest one is one sentence long. The longest story is a page and a half. I read these stories, and they are mind-blowing, so beautiful.”

She secured a group of actors to read Wideman’s stories in New York. The event pulled a packed house. But it was when Fox looked over at former US Senator Bill Bradley (also a one-time New York Knick), who happened to be in the audience, and he nodded up and down that she realized the production must travel.

Cedering Fox

“I knew by the second monologue that this had to be like The Vagina Monologues,” she says. Fox headed to Santa Monica to showcase a reading with different actors. Despite the LA Marathon causing transportation mayhem, the room was filled with 150 people. Fox scheduled a third show, at the M Bar in Hollywood.

“Every audience had their jaws on floor,” she says. “The way I imagine [the reading] is, for example, New York City — if you took just one block and imagined all the different voices inside behind those walls, the voices of people and their daily struggles, and their loves and losses. John Edgar Wideman’s exploration of his African-American heritage, to hear it brought to life by African-American actors, it just resonates, and it’s completely universal. It just happens that’s his vessel to talk about what it means to be human.”

In April 2011, at a Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj concert at the Staples Center, Fox was struck by inspiration. “I thought it would be really cool to add a musical element,” she says. At the concert, Fox says she found herself thinking “how do I get [this crowd] to hear John Edgar Wideman’s words? I said, I’m going to do Wideman’s stories with hip-hop music.”

She contacted Evan “Chuck Inglish” Ingersoll of the Cool Kids, who had just moved from Chicago to Los Angeles and was looking to get into musical scoring. The Cool Kids had made a name for themselves with video games (NBA Live), commercials (Mountain Dew), and TV shows (Entourage). Inglish was open to the challenge of tackling theater.

“I ended up getting the job to score the play at the same time I was making my first solo album, Convertibles,” explains Inglish, who has spent the past month at Fox’s house collaborating on the soundscape for Storytales. “They played off each other. I played her half-songs from the album, and she would say it would fit perfect.”

Inglish credits his mom for opening his eyes to reading, and to Wideman. “I was always aware of how descriptive his writing was,” Inglish says. “Within the first sentence you can pick up a whole clear picture in your mind. That’s how you know when a writer is really good — when it doesn’t take long for you to draw what he saw in your brain with your imagination.”

Chuck Inglish

For Saturday’s performance, Inglish will be on stage playing his original score live as 30 actors deliver the words and 20 performers from urban dance collective Culture Shock bust the moves. djembe drummer Aboubacar Kouyate will make a special appearance. Everyone, even Fox, is contributing time and talent gratis. WordTheatre is also partnering with Communities in Schools to launch a fundraising campaign to bring 450 students from Title 1 LAUSD high schools to the show.

“Wideman wanted a lot of African Americans in the audience, especially people who don’t see this type of thing,” says Fox.

In Fox’s mind, nobody should miss the experience of Storytales.

“Everybody’s moving away from words,” she says. “I believe the voice is the mirror of the soul. I learn so much by listening to people. What I see happen to our audience, it doesn’t matter if you’re the plumber or the president, it affects people so much to hear a really human story well told. When do we have the chance for our imaginations to run wild? Never does it happen quite as beautifully as when somebody’s reading to you.

“Writers are taking things out of their pockets that we normally shove down and looking at them. I believe people are transformed when they come to a show. It makes you realize you’re not alone. You feel connected to everybody. It creates a sense of community. What I believe very firmly is that we are all so much more similar than we are dissimilar.

“But the fact is that things are moving so fast and people are not hearing each other’s voices, which is where our souls reside. They’re not seeing each other’s eyes; those are two of the biggest communicators. All of that information is precious because it’s our uniqueness, our individuality. And what’s happening is people are becoming more manic and depressed because they’re not talking the language of the soul. What I aim to do in every single show is to connect people, to share stories of what it is to be human, and remind everybody how connected we are.”

Storytales, Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. Sat., October 6, 8 pm. Tickets: $15-$45.  FordTheatres.org. 323-461-3673.

Jessica Koslow

Jessica Koslow