“Who was here when we were at the 9:30 Club?” Amy Saidman, artistic executive director of Story District, asks the audience. She is greeted with cheers and whoops, so she continues: “Who found us at the Black Cat? How about the Sixth & I?” More cheers, as Saidman names the different locations and different stages where Story District, the nonprofit spearheading DC storytelling, has performed over the last two decades.
Saidman took the stage following a stunning, rousing, and extremely harmonically precise “Happy Birthday” medley by the Howard University Community Choir in celebration of Story District’s 25th anniversary. That medley, along with Saidman’s remarks, confirmed the tone of the evening at the Lincoln Theatre. The night wasn’t just a celebration. It wasn’t a recitation of history or an indication of the direction of the years to come. It was much more like an alumni weekend. A homecoming of sorts—inclusive, informal, and inviting participation and engagement.
Over their first 25 years, Story District has become a DC staple. With roots that go back to the founding of the Washington Storytellers Theatre in 1991, the first official Story District (then WST) event was an open mic at The Speakeasy. Since then, Story District has grown to offer classes and consulting, coaching, and their usual storytelling shows. On the night of the big party, they got down to the business they do best: providing a way for folks to share a story that means something to them. Eight different people—Graham Campbell, JR Denison, Yasmin Elhady, Jenn Kamara, Mike Kane, Antwan Perry, Alexandra Petri, and Caitlin Reilly—told eight different tales, creating a conglomeration of snapshots in words that combined the styles of stand-up comedy, personal essay, and a dash of slam poetry. From childbirth to getting too stoned to surprise birthday parties, each was clear, descriptive, and entertaining, but the most notable stories came from seasoned storytellers Jennifer Kamara, Alexandra Petri, and Yasmin Elhady, as well as newcomer JR Denson, who tells a very funny story about having a concussion on a school skiing trip. Elhady’s story in particular was so masterfully performed and written that it’s a wonder they didn’t ask her, second to last in the monologue order, to be the grand finale.
There was no specific throughline between these narratives, just Saidman returning to the stage to add a bit of commentary and introduce the next act. A ten-minute intermission bisected the storytelling, but not before a bit more information about the organization was given. Saidman took time to encourage a $25-per-month donation pledge, and to introduce President of the Board Amy Fisher Bruey, who urged the audience to get involved by joining said Board of Directors and named community partner organizations like Shoulder to Shoulder, Words, Beats, & Life, and finally, Team Rayceen Productions. Rayceen Pendarvis then took the stage to talk about the importance of Story District, lead an exercise in self-love, and plug for donation.
There were quite a few more calls for donation peppered throughout the night, and that’s where the unity and openness, the encouragement from leaders to get involved, felt the slightest bit dissonant. It is so deeply important for organizations doing work like Story District is doing to have an income. Being able to monetarily sustain work in the community, and having the resources to do so, is critical, but the way that the monetary ask was coupled with emotional appeals, with the performances, with the excitement of the huge audience, the collective self-love exercise, the encouragement to become further involved, made something feel ever so slightly inauthentic. As an audience, we were feeling the togetherness, humor, and connection, then reminded that sharing in those emotions comes at a price. It’s a bit disarming, but it’s also very clever marketing and effective fundraising for an organization doing great work.
After intermission and the next eight performances, Saidman once again came out onstage. She excitedly reminded everyone about the afterparty, encouraging all of us to stay for cupcakes, dancing with DJ Sugarpants, and good company. She urged us to take a copy of District Fray magazine, which had just done a spread on Story District, so that we could learn a bit more about the organization, and the individuals who make what they do possible. I eagerly went to the lobby to pick up a copy and began to read. As I did, I was floored. Back in 1997, when Story District was just getting started, it operated based on its premise and community alone. Storytelling was an open mic affair. Folks brought dishes, potluck style, to share with everyone in attendance. I marveled at the growth of the organization, now celebrating their birthday in the company of hundreds of people. I smiled at the thought that so many want to come together to share and hear these stories, but I couldn’t help but wish for a taste of what Story District created in 1997: a scrappy, open environment, facilitating artistic exchange, creating a community built solely by the power of shared food and shared words.
The Story District Birthday Bash was presented on October 1, 2022, by Story District performing at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U Street NW, Washington, DC. For more information, visit storydistrict.org.
Story District to celebrate 25 years with birthday bash (news story, September 18, 2022)