Stories: Mirrors of Identity | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Stories are pre-models of existence.

Stories reveal you.

Stories compel us to face our truths. The story is the mirror in which we look to see our truths.

Stories teach us to look in deeply.

The minute you see, the minute you can do. A story helps one see.

Whenever you’re telling somebody about a series of events, you are telling a story—no matter what the subject is or when the events occurred. Because of this, stories are of great value to human culture and are some of the oldest, most important parts of life. In his speech, “Why do we tell children stories?” Nigerian author Ben Okri says: “To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself. Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts and who are irresponsible in the application of their art.”

Almost every other civilization tells stories to their kids and to each other. It is interesting to reflect on the conclusions that anthropologist Jean Kommers comes to in his book “Stolen Children? or Stolen Gypsies?” and that, unfortunately, are still valid as of today. He claims that “through the accumulation of negative stereotypes about them, children’s literature has robbed gypsies of the opportunity to be seen as respectable people by successive generations of adolescents.” It is significant to think that most of this “children’s literature” has been written by people that have not even met any Roma people in their lives. And what is more, this “literature” has not only shaped the vision that others might have about Roma communities but also the vision that Roma’s have had about themselves.

As part of the Roma movement building, we need to challenge the kinds of stories that are told about us and refuse to be silenced. In many cases, Roma voices and experiences are not visible, and it is very rare to hear Roma people telling their own stories. One way to challenge this is to produce stories that put Roma experiences and perspectives front and center. The more Roma’s stories are told and shared, the more it will become the norm that our stories are important and valuable. For any group that is marginalized and whose stories are not heard or valued, storytelling is an effective way for people to empower themselves by sharing their own stories in place of the stories told about them.

With this in mind, our organization, Asociación Cultural por la Investigación y el Desarrollo Independiente del teatro profesional en Andalucía (or Aaiún Producciones) partnered with theater companies from Hungary, Romania, and Italy for the Erasmus+ program in 2020. The project, entitled Roma Heroes in Streets of European Cities, was the second Erasmus+ project that our four organizations—Independent Theater Hungary, Giuvlipen, Rampa Prenestina, and us—have done together. We are all theater companies with different approaches to our artistic work which made it an even more interesting and needed project. Erasmus+ is a European Union (EU) program that supports education, training, youth, and sports in Europe. Erasmus+ gives us the opportunity to cooperate with organizations from different countries in the EU, and building this way connects our organization to others. Through this program, cultural organizations in Europe have the opportunity to internationalize our work and learn from other organizations.

In many cases, Roma voices and experiences are not visible, and it is very rare to hear Roma people telling their own stories.

It’s important to keep in mind that European countries do not have a common language, history, or culture which—in my opinion—offers the opportunity for a multitude of perspectives. However, this can also can be a burden to overcome. In the case of our Erasmus+ team, we come from countries that speak Hungarian, Romanian, Italian, and Spanish, but we use English as a common language. Many of the Roma youngsters we work with have little or no knowledge of English, which has brought back into focus the Romani language. Many of us no longer speak Romani because it has been systematically forbidden in the countries we come from and therefore it has practically disappeared. Language as a sign of identity but also as a means to communicate with other Romani people from other countries, is put forth as an issue that can become a relevant aspect in future projects.

The first Erasmus+ project that our consortium did took place from May 2019 to November 2020 and was called: (Roma) Heroes in Theater Education and Everyday Life. In Sevilla, Spain, our organization used storytelling and Story Circles to build the play Roots and Wings, a HUMAN library from the Poligono Sur. The process combined not only the production of a play but also the training of youth at a national and international level from the neighborhood of Poligono Sur, one of the most deprived areas in the south part of the city of Sevilla with a population of over 50,000 people and a per capita income of €5,329 per year. These youngsters were trained to be cultural mediators in their community using the common methodology that we developed in this Erasmus+ program: the Roma Heroes methodology. Our organization has previously worked with true stories for our Theater of Life and Experience project, which we spent seven years developing. Through that process, we gained valuable knowledge on working with real-life stories in adult education settings, and we applied that knowledge when we worked on our Story Circle methodology.

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