NEIL INTRAUB: I was in a panic.
My hands were ice-cold and I just blurted out, "Why?
Why are we doing this?
We don't even love each other!"
LIZ MONIZ: When my mother gets home, her only advice is, "Don't look at it, don't touch it, and don't talk about it."
VALERIE STEPHENS: All of a sudden, I felt this thing.
I had never felt this before, this thing called old.
THERESA OKOKON: Tonight's theme is "The Bright Side."
In this life, dark times are inevitable.
Our plans fall through, our relationships sometimes fall apart.
That hope that we've placed on the future might just wither before our very eyes.
And when this happens, the best that we can do is try to peek through that darkness to find the brighter side.
Tonight's storytellers are bringing their stories of those moments when something bad happened, but it changed their life for the better.
♪ MONIZ: My name is Liz Cupertino Moniz.
I am a stand-up comedian.
I'm also a mother of two and I am the chief client officer of A&A Window Cleaning.
And how did you get started in storytelling?
I think just as a kid pretending to be a comedian, I would kind of use pretending to be a stand-up as, like, my way to work through whatever was going on in my life, basically.
Where do you get your courage to tell a story on stage?
I think the courage comes from the audience.
When you're on stage and you can feel and see them reacting to you, I personally get a tremendous sense of power from that, and it just makes me want to keep doing it.
And if there's any lessons that you're hoping that the audience takes away from your story, what would those be?
MONIZ: I think to not judge any one person who's in a particular situation, because you never know what someone is capable of when they are able to find their power.
♪ I'm 12 years old and I'm standing in my bathroom performing one of my weekly stand-up comedy routines for the audience that exists only inside my head.
This is the only time in my life where I feel heard, even if it's just the little tray of pink seashell soaps that are listening to me.
My microphone is a purple Conair hairbrush.
I'm telling the audience in my head all about what had just happened the day before.
I was in the bathroom when I realized that I was 100%, without a doubt, definitely bleeding to death.
I ran from the bathroom to my father, who hasn't spoken to me much since I was ten years old.
He can't bear the fact that I'm growing up, he can barely even look me in the eye when he tells me, "Go sit outside and wait for your mother to get home."
I go and sit outside and wait for my mother, all the while contemplating just how much my father actually hates me.
When my mother gets home and I ask her to please explain to me what the heck is going on, her only advice is, "Don't look at it, don't touch it, and don't talk about it."
This is the sum total of my education on the birds and the bees.
I was raised Italian Catholic by two people who were more afraid of the world than most Italian Catholics.
Growing up, I heard one thing over and over again, which was, "Better you cry than us."
And to me, this meant it was better if I stayed close to my parents rather than go off into the world and upset them, even if I had to suffer for that.
I spent the majority of my time with my parents.
When I was 16, my grandmother moved in with us and my parents' attention was diverted from controlling me to taking care of her.
I was able to sneak away and spend a little more time with my boyfriend.
I was 17 when I had just broken up with my boyfriend, was in the bathroom when I read the positive test result on the pregnancy test that I had just taken.
My parents found out roughly 30 seconds later when they came running in to hear what all the screaming and crying was about.
My mother was weirdly calm and immediately took control of the situation.
She said, "Well, you can't have an abortion and you can't put the baby up for adoption."
My father got in his car and drove to New York to stay with his mother.
My son was born 16 years ago in the middle of a blizzard that was so bad, I didn't have a single visitor.
The nurses made me get out of bed and go eat breakfast in the cafeteria with the other new parents.
I had never felt more alone in my entire life.
I had no skills, no driver's license, and no voice.
But what I did have was a new baby who had the most beautiful red hair I had ever seen in my life.
It was like this miraculous ray of sunshine that filled my hospital room.
In a warped way, my life had been good enough for me up until then, but it was not good enough for us, and I wanted better.
I eventually made friends with people who pushed me, often against my will, to be more independent.
I found a good job and got my driver's license, met the man who would become my husband, and I got to a point where I had to tell my parents that for once, it was better if they cried because we were leaving.
I was 24 when my son and I left.
When my son was in second grade, he was chosen to sing a solo in the school chorus concert.
And as I sat there watching my little ray of redheaded sunshine sing his heart out without fear, I realized he was that way because of me.
And I wanted to be brave, too, because those stand-up comedy shows that had been taking place in my childhood bathroom were now taking place in my adult bathroom, and I wanted to make it serious.
I reached out to one of my friends who was a successful stand-up comedian, and he got me on a show at a comedy club.
100 of my closest friends and acquaintances showed up.
The guy who does my taxes showed up with his wife.
And I went out on the stage and I picked up that real microphone and I looked at the crowd and I said, "I'm sorry, I'm not ready for this."
And I ran off the stage and cried.
But they gave me another chance.
I went up on the stage and I told a joke about this old lady that I threw shade at because she threw shade at me for being a young, single teenage mom, and it crushed.
And I had never felt more powerful in my entire life.
I'm still doing stand-up six years later.
I have performed at Harvard University.
I've used my stand-up comedy to raise thousands of dollars for organizations like the A.C.L.U.
and Planned Parenthood and local domestic violence shelters.
I've had people come up to me after shows and thank me for making them laugh about painful things that they have also experienced.
And I couldn't ask for anything more than that.
When I think about the moment that led to all of this, I remember that 17-year-old girl who's alone in the hospital during the scariest, darkest time in her life, who thought she'd never be able to find her voice, but found her strength, courage, and the will to be better in the one thing that everyone told her would ruin her life, which was my little ray of redheaded sunshine: my son.
♪ STEPHENS: My name is Valerie Stephens.
I am a Bostonian, unabashedly proud Black Bostonian, and I am a performing artist.
I started out as an actor, then became a storyteller so that I could make money to pay rent.
Then I started playing around with spoken word before it was even called that.
And what kind of stories do you most frequently tell?
I tend to tell one of two styles and types.
I do folktales from Africa and the diaspora, but I also tell stories about real people, historical stories.
And I'm learning, in working with children, they don't hear a lot about folks who have come before them.
And so I tell them those stories and children love it.
What do you find to be so transformative about storytelling?
STEPHENS: It helps build confidence.
You own your piece of the ground, you stand and say, "This is me, here I am."
And that really builds a sense of self.
♪ Let's go back.
March 15, 2020.
I was in a really good mood.
I was working at a bistro doing Sunday brunch.
This is what I do.
I am a performer and I love my job.
I've been doing it for 36 years full-time.
Now, I'd heard about this thing called COVID-19, but I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to it, you know?
There was a lot of this and a lot of that and a lot of noise.
I was far more concerned with where I was going to have my next gig, to a point where I went to the owner and asked her, "Have you worked on the next quarter's schedule?"
She looked at me and she said, "Valerie, why don't we cross that bridge when we get to it?"
You see, I had plans.
I had made plans.
I had had enough money, I could go visit my former professor who threw me on stage and I was making plans to return to Ghana.
I love Ghana in West Africa.
I was excited about it.
I was ready.
So, the next day, March 16, began my transition.
My life changed.
All of a sudden, everything stopped.
I didn't know whether I was going to be able to perform again, or where.
So I did like a lot of folks did, I went to bed.
I figured if I stayed there, sooner-- hopefully not later-- this thing would sort of waft and disappear and I could get back to my love: performance.
Well, one month went by, two months went by.
All of a sudden, it became apparent that this was much larger than I ever thought it might be.
I couldn't perform, vocalists and horn players could not perform inside.
I think we have too much air.
I looked around and didn't know everything was changing and I didn't know what was going on, and all of a sudden, I felt this thing.
I had never felt this before, this thing called old.
It just settled on my body and gravity worked and everything seemed to drop.
What do you do with this?
I don't like this feeling of old.
Three months went by, four months went by.
The conversations that I used to have with my friends and associates changed from, "Where's your next gig?"
to the folks who had passed.
"Have you made your funeral arrangements yet?
Do you have plans?"
Do I have plans?
(sardonic chuckle) I never thought about it, you know, with any focus.
Plans, for my own funeral?
I have to do that now?
Five months went by, six months went by.
Nothing changed-- old.
Started to seem like it sucked me up and down into a hole.
I was in the rabbit hole.
"Um, maybe I do need to make some plans."
I talked to a woman who is my sister girl from another mother, and said, "How do you do this?"
She said, "Well, talk to somebody in your family."
You know, I don't have children.
Now I understand why we need them-- to make plans for you.
I called my niece.
I told her about my important things.
I told her that any of my important papers are kept in my underwear drawer and next to my bed in the nightstand.
I have my... Hmm, I have my, uh... Hmm... Toys.
(chuckles) I'd never had any discussion with anyone about my toys.
Okay, the plan was made.
Where from here?
Nine months went by, ten months went by, and I realized...
I was doing some performance via Zoom.
I'd put on my makeup and go sit in front of my computer or phone and tell stories, never connecting with a person, never hearing applause.
I realized then and there the reason why I follow my passion and I do what I do is because of the energy: the energy that the audience gives me; the energy feeds me.
The energy moves me.
The energy keeps me young.
I needed that.
The connection with an audience, where we laugh and sing or think and applaud together, was essential in my life.
That's my job, and I want my job back.
So I started making plans-- not those funeral plans, those were already dealt with.
I started making other plans.
I'll become a producer.
I will learn how to Zoom wherever I need to Zoom.
I will get my job back and I will get my energy back.
You see, with COVID pandema and racism weighing down on me, even though I was prepared and born to deal with racism, I can deal with this, too.
I stand on the shoulders of many, many who have gone before me.
They've taught me how to deal with this thing called old.
And so I'll sing my little song.
♪ Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around ♪ ♪ Turn me around, turn me around ♪ ♪ Ain't gonna let no COVID turn me around ♪ ♪ Keep on walking, keep on talking ♪ ♪ Going to get to freedom land ♪ INTRAUB: My name is Neil Intraub.
I grew up in Plainview, Long Island, and I currently live in the East Village.
And I'm a co-director of a not- for-profit organization called TheatreMoves, whose mission is to help students to communicate-- to communicate not only with voice, but to communicate with facial expression and gesture and different body language.
That's so interesting.
I'd love to hear more about physical theater and how you got involved in that practice.
I was always interested in performing, although sort of vaguely.
You know, when I was a kid, I didn't know that I really wanted to do this, but my sister used to make films.
And she would-- an eight millimeter or Super 8-- and she would send them into Kodak, little film contests.
And I acted in one of her films when I was 12 years old, and it was so much fun.
And when I got to college, I was a psychology major, but I did take a mime class.
So doing mime in college, it was interesting, because you would actually create a story based on an illusion you know?
You would, you would use your body to, to act as an impetus for a story.
OKOKON: What do you feel like is your favorite part of storytelling?
Well, actually, what I love about it is that it melds together all these different skills, right?
There is the performance skill, but there's also the writing skill, and the editing skill.
If you can say something in one word, why say ten words?
If you could say something with one facial expression, why say anything?
And it's like a puzzle that you have to figure out.
♪ When I was in my early 20s, I wasn't a confident guy.
I just didn't believe in myself and I found success to be very elusive.
All my friends were studying to become doctors and lawyers and business professionals.
They were so highly motivated.
I was a mime at a mall.
So I was understandably anxious about the future.
And back then, I never thought I'd be involved in a romantic relationship, let alone get married.
But then my friend introduced me to this attractive young lawyer who liked me.
We started going out.
It was exciting being in a relationship.
It was all so new.
I felt flattered and grown up.
Before I knew it, the days turned into weeks, which turned into months.
Everything was going great, except I didn't like her.
She was really mean.
She was highly judgmental and very manipulative, and deep down in my bones, I knew it was wrong, but she liked me.
And as a result, I felt this twisted sense of obligation.
I didn't really understand it.
It's like my brain wasn't fully formed.
As if her liking me was the important thing.
What I felt didn't matter.
I misinterpreted bits of wisdom.
"You need to compromise in a relationship.
"Doesn't matter if you're desperately unhappy.
You need to compromise, son."
And I had to contend with her friends, all these alpha males who were highly competitive and mean-spirited.
Oh, they had a field day with my mime training.
And she was weirdly tough.
We were once watching a documentary on JFK.
And near the end, my eyes started to well up.
She looked at me and she said, "What are you crying about?"
And I said, "Well, the president, "he got shot in the head and he died.
I feel sad."
She stared at me and said, "You don't know death."
I did a quick calculus in my head.
My friends didn't like her.
My family thought I was going through a phase.
The only thing we had in common was, we both liked movies.
But she liked me.
Then, out of the blue, she decides that we don't have enough adventure in our relationship, and for some reason, it's up to me to figure this out.
So I plan a trip to Great Adventure.
I mean, I'm very literal.
We drive down to Great Adventure in my Plymouth Volare.
And back then, they had this animal safari thing-- you know, where you could drive through and see all the wild animals.
It's like the wonders of nature, that kind of thing.
Well, I pay for the ticket and we, we drive through, and within five minutes, an enraged ostrich attacks my car and a monkey drops out of a tree, lands on the hood, and starts pleasuring himself with abandon.
I mean, this little guy is really going at it.
She is horrified and she's angry at me.
Like it's my fault.
I made a horrible choice.
I mean, I thought it was fun.
Well, when we got back, she was furious and she suggested that we take a break from each other.
I immediately agree.
I mean, it's mutual, which is very important to me.
I, I just couldn't be the bad guy.
Well, this was the best two weeks I ever spent.
It was like I was sprung from prison.
I saw a movie-- Never Say Never Again with Sean Connery.
I had pizza.
Simple things seemed wondrous to me.
Well, I get home, I'm actually whistling, I'm so happy.
And the phone rings.
Chills run down my spine.
Her favorite band is Toto, her favorite song, "Africa."
I pick up the phone and "Africa" is playing in the background.
"Be strong," I tell myself.
Here's the gist of the conversation: "Hon, let's try it again."
"I don't think that's a good idea."
"Because we've tried it again before.
It just didn't work out."
"I know, but I think we can make it work.
Can we try?"
"You mean it's over?"
"Oh, my God, can it really be over?"
(tearful exhalations) Then, she pulls out the big guns.
"But I love you.
I love you so much.
I remember looking down at my foot.
It was tapping a constant rhythm on the floor and I just kept telling myself, "Be strong.
Be strong, you can do this."
And then I responded, "Uh... okay.
But just this last time."
Three months later, boom, we're both in my Plymouth Volare driving to this stupid catering place to set the date for our wedding.
I felt like I was driving to my own funeral.
You know, like I just woke up and wound up in a really bad episode of Quantum Leap, where I just dropped into the body of this guy that's about to drive off a cliff.
I mean, I was in a panic.
My hands were ice-cold and I just blurted out, "Why?
Why are we doing this?
We don't even love each other."
And her response was chilling.
She said, "I know.
"It's just that we've invested "so much time in the relationship, it seems like such a shame to end it."
But I just couldn't be the bad guy.
I was insane.
I felt paralyzed.
Well, we finally get to the catering place.
It looks like an alpine ski lodge in the middle of Long Island.
It is so pretentious.
We both go in and her mother's waiting with her pen poised over her checkbook.
She looks up at me, she says, "How's March?"
And I say, "Not good."
And she says, "How's June?"
I said, "Well, June's not good, either."
But in my head, I just keep hearing, "You don't know death.
You don't know death."
And I think I do know death.
And it finally occurs to me-- I don't have to do this.
And I say, "No, this is wrong."
And they both look at me like I'm insane.
But you know what?
It felt so good.
The truth always does.
We break up and then I meet my wife, who's really fun.
Plus, we both cry over presidential assassinations.
And yeah, we compromise on where we go to dinner, on where we go on vacation, but we've never compromised on who we love.
OKOKON: Watch Stories from the Stage, anytime, anywhere.
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