Arts storytelling review

Four women; four stories

A multigenerational group of women harnessed the expressive power of the spoken word to express their nuanced identities and challenge social paradigms

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Renowned storyteller Nokugcina Elsie Mhlophe brings her talent to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Braveheart: Storytelling from a Soulful Place
Starring Amanda Shea, Valerie Stephens, Porsha Olayiwola, and Gcina Mhlophe
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Jan. 9

I have always been a bookworm at heart and was understandably hooked when I first heard about Braveheart, a storytelling evening hosted by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The event promised “storytelling from a soulful place,” encouraging each of its four female artists to celebrate their diverse roles as mothers, businesswomen, philanthropists, and friends; self-define their racial and gender identities; and reflect on the various social and familial obstacles they each have had to overcome. Throughout the evening, each performer harnessed the expressive power of the spoken word, sharing their struggles, triumphs, and vulnerabilities with the audience. Each artist’s whispered poems, soulful songs, and hearty laughter drew me in close and made for a highly personal experience. 

The night started off with Amanda Shea, a poet and singer, who performed several pieces on identity, social justice, and racism. Her first performance was my personal favorite. It was both beautiful and disturbing, beginning with a woman wearing a floor-length white dress standing in the center of a spotlight. Shea’s voice floated in from off stage, describing the first few years of her marriage in rhythmic prose, and she soon emerged, draped in a flowing black maxi dress, holding a pile of chains. Shea’s raspy voice communicated her unhappiness, and as she began to wrap the chains in her hand around the woman in white, the audience began to better understand the stifling nature of Shea’s relationship. Throughout her performance, Shea communicated the importance of uncompromising self-care and dignity. I could understand how much thought had gone into the performance from the thoughtful symbolism and deliberate vocal inflection it was infused with. Shea’s story was told in a refreshing, albeit sobering way, and her next few pieces continued to showcase her remarkable skill.

Next came Valerie Stephens, a native Bostonian, philanthropist, and performing artist with a passion for history. Stephens’ presentation more closely resembled traditional storytelling, and she began by describing her experiences growing up in a racially charged Boston, including elucidating pictures of herself as a child in a starched white dress, of herself as a college student engaging with Shirley Graham Du Bois, and even of her birth certificate, which classified her race as C for “colored.” Punctuated by hearty, booming laughter, Stephens’ story related her ultimate success in accepting and rejoicing in her black identity with sobering sincerity and encouraged her audience to do the same. 

After a short intermission, Porsha Olayiwola, a queer feminist and winner of multiple national and world poetry slams, took the stage. Olayiwola began her performance with a poem about the social dangers of being a queer black woman and her journey towards realizing her identity. It was clear that Olayiwola’s artistic talent lay in poetry, as her inflective, almost musical voice skillfully communicated her romantic relationships and nuanced identity. Olayiwola’s extensive usage of photographs projected on the wall behind her gave the audience a glimpse into her life and made her stories all the more tangible. After a few dances and musical numbers, Olayiwola yielded the stage to Gcina Mhlophe, a South African freedom fighter, actress, and storyteller.

Out of all of the performances, I enjoyed Mhlophe’s the most. Her charisma rolled off in waves, and her double bass voice beautifully resonated across the hall. Wearing a traditional dress and Zulu beaded necklace, Mhlophe paid homage to her rich South African history and spent her time talking about her life-long relationship with poetry, theater, and words. “Stories have been a lifeline for me to have a sense of self and confidence,” Mhlophe said. My favorite moment in the performance was her recitation of her original poem, “The Dancer.” Mhlophe begins by admiring her mother’s beautiful traditional wedding dancing and expressing a wish to emulate her graceful rhythm. Soon, her voice becomes agitated and vigorous as she reflects that there are no weddings anymore, only funerals in which she can dance with “strange smiles” and “vengeance” in her eyes. This poem, which referenced the dangerous times of the anti-apartheid movement, was beautifully written and moving.

The night concluded with an appreciative standing ovation as the four women stood together on stage, a picture of solidarity. I am sure the applause had much to do with the creativity of each artist and the richness of their expressive voices, but I also like to think it was due to the willingness of each performer to open up their hearts to the audience — to talk about both the beautiful and ugly aspects of their experiences and lay out their lives to their listeners in such a vulnerable way. As Mhlophe reflected, stories are “invisible threads that bind us together, make us feel connected to each other, and say, ‘I am here.’”