Listening to The Moth mainstage live storytelling show is as much an immersion into performers’ experience of navigating between worlds as it is a call to be present and listen: and to let the threads of stories, of life itself, exist where they are.
One delay and five months after its originally scheduled performance date in October of 2018, The Moth’s long awaited mainstage debut in Little Rock showcased a full range of five stories, each orbiting around themes of home and finding one’s footing in unfamiliar settings.
Before the performance on February 28, the event’s host Ophira Eisenberg told me that each story would feel like its own meal. Indeed, I left the show recalling each of the stories’ residual flavors, and at the same time, I was hungry for more. The Moth’s debut in Little Rock was an impressive showcase of voices that need to be heard, and yet, it’s just the tip of the iceberg; I’m hopeful that this is just the beginning of The Moth’s presence here in Arkansas.
Performers included Little Rock locals — Korto Momolu Briggs, a Liberia-born fashion designer and former contestant on Project Runway, Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton, an educator and member of the second class of African American students entering Central High in 1959, and accompanying musician Charlotte Crosmer, a member of the Arkansas Symphony and Quapaw String Quartet — and Alistair Bane, Max García Conover, and Monte Montepare, hailing from home bases in Maine and Colorado. Each performed a story lasting approximately ten to twelve minutes, completely from memory and without prompting or notes of any kind.
The night before storytellers take the stage, Eisenberg likes to ask each person a question related to the night’s theme — this time, the prompt was about a time in which the speaker had felt at home recently. The stories took place across a diverse range of cultural settings and as Eisenberg sees it, part of her role is to act, in her words, as a “sorbet,” to reset the stage for the next performer. As the laughter died down from Eisenberg’s comedic sketches between stories, she shared each presenter’s answer to the prompt about home and introduced them to the stage.
Alistair Bain: at home when he received a warm cookie upon checking into the hotel in Little Rock. He kicked off the night by sharing an account of returning to his home state of Oklahoma, where he’s a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe, to stay with his friend’s grandmother, a member of the Cherokee tribe. Bain shared about a spontaneous musical hymn performance that was demanded of him during that visit, which was received with silence, no eye contact from folks in an Oklahoma church and with waves of laughter by the Moth audience.
Next, Korto Momolu Briggs: at home when she bought a house in Little Rock — her base for almost 20 years— and gave birth to her baby within months. She took the stage to speak about her family’s immigration to Canada amidst instability, later turned coup in Liberia and her path into fashion design. At its heart, her story was about small acts of kindness across generations and the possibilities that can spring from supporting and believing in another person.
Mid way, Monte Montepare: at home when he was approached the night before at the Root Cafe about his obvious potential for the upcoming annual beard contest. Montepare, a Colorado native, used his whole body in a story about navigating aloneness and the end of a relationship in a small town in Alaska — and, as dramatic or unlikely as it may seem, the realizations that came out of an unintentional morning encounter with a grizzly bear.
Then, Max García Conover: at home when he saw the mixed-shade gray Arkansas River and the birds along its shores. His story was similarly based in nature, touching on the practice he and his mother developed in place of Sunday School and awkward steps in expressions of early love, finishing his story with the idea that “it was endless and luminous and on that night, it seemed like god lives everywhere.”
Finally, Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton: at home when hanging out at the kitchen table, where her story begins around breakfast time in early September, 1959, as she and her family prepared for her departure to Central High School. She was fifteen years old, the youngest of five African American students to begin desegregation, and four years later, would be the only African American student in her graduating high school class of 544 students. “I was bewildered to discover that the first day and the last day would be the same,” she said, speaking about the exclusion and silent treatment she received from both teachers and students.
Twenty years later, she received an invitation for her high school reunion and decided to attend, pushing aside her former conviction that she would never return to Central High School. She ended her story on the note of recognizing the change inherent in time passing, while also leaving listeners to reflect and fill in the blanks about the things that hadn’t. The crowd rose for a long applause.
The Moth, launched in 1997, creates a distinctive intimacy at its simple stagings, emphasizing the speaker’s voice as the driving force through various landscapes. I love podcasts, including the Moth and other first person narrative shows, but listening to stories in a packed room is particularly special. While you might laugh or consciously, quietly, hold your breath when tuning in to a show via headphones, the experience becomes collective, human, expansive as the people around you are similarly moved.
To watch these performers share deeply personal stories is a privilege and product of many hours of hard work. Korto Momolu Briggs was approached by Little Rock-raised Moth Director Meg Bowles about sharing her story and began going back and forth with producers to draft her story in September. Leading up to the performance, she found herself practicing her story constantly, in the shower or as she drove. Though Momolu Briggs said she’s shared different iterations of this story countless times, the process of morphing it into a condensed version for the Moth was a reflective and challenging experience.
“Listeners have to get everything from description and tone, and I think it’s kind of amazing,” she said. “The story is really a pivotal moment in my life where I could have gone another way and not into fashion there was something that happened, a big gift, and without knowing it, it really changed my life.”
Momolu Briggs started listening to The Moth and other spoken word performances to prepare for the performance, but surprised herself when she “became sort of addicted” to the stories she heard. Now, she’s at work on developing a podcast.
Since its own kickoff in founder George Dawes Green’s living room, The Moth has gone on to host regular programs in more than 29 cities and many more throughout the world. Events include curated, mainstage storytelling events like this one, but the Moth also hosts StorySLAMs in the spirit of open mics. Eisenberg, who has been hosting The Moth since its early days, sees debut performances as an especially exciting, electric space to experience firsthand — and often times, the first of many more to come.
Thursday’s debut was a classic reflection of The Moth’s power, as a showcase of both local and national talent. Little Rock has a proven appetite for live storytelling, with groups such as The Yarn, poetry readings at Guillermo’s, and the upcoming Poetry Out Loud statewide youth competition at Argenta Community Theater. That is to say that there’s room to grow, collaborate, and continue sharing stories by and for Little Rock audiences. Hopefully, we’ll see a lot more Moth performances and stories that surprise, complicate, deepen, and expand our capacities to listen.