eople in sweaters and Oxford shoes milled about the upstairs of Trident Booksellers, talking about plans for their next movie night, holiday cookie decorating, and people they hadn’t seen in a long time. They ordered wine and moved around the tables, stopping only to talk to a man in a blue shirt and glasses who approached every group.
He asked them if they wanted to sign up to be a “teller”—a storyteller, that is—for the Massmouth story slam that they were all gathered there for. Some nervously shook their heads and pulled their wine glasses to their lips, while others looked at their friends with apprehensive smiles creeping onto their faces.
Some were convinced—or as the man in the blue likes to say, inspired—to throw their name in the bucket. The 10 empty spaces on the whiteboard at the front of the room slowly began to fill as people took their seats and looked toward the host, Theresa Okokon, for further instructions.
Okokon is the kind of person who captivates the room without even trying—no one reached down into her bag to check the time or allowed his eyes to wander about the room in an effort to pass the time. Okokon talked about her time trying to find her niche in Boston as an adult. The majority of the room raised their hands when she asked who had been in Boston for fewer than five years. Being the new person in a city can make you feel like a black sheep—someone incapable of belonging or assimilation.
“We all have those moments in our lives when we have stood out in one way or another,” Okokon said.
This idea was the theme of the night’s story slam—tellers had to incorporate a time they felt they were a black sheep into their five-minute story. Hosted by Massmouth, a nonprofit organization that aims to give people in the Commonwealth a place to tell and hear stories, the slams, which are always based on a certain theme, are competitions in which 10 people are given the chance to tell their story, without any sort of aid, for five minutes or less. After everyone has had a chance to compete, the five judges—whose identities are undisclosed—vote on who told the best tale.
It may seem nerve-wracking—most of the participants were relatively new to the storytelling stage, and they aren’t always comfortable.
“I was terrified,” said Mika Gross, the first-place winner of the black sheep competition. “I’m terrified of public speaking.”
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ross said that during her time as an undergrad at Brown University, she always wanted to join the storytelling club, but there was an audition. After she graduated and moved to Boston, she started to get more involved ,having gone and heard at others, and telling two stories before her winning one. She likes to push herself to tell, but she wasn’t sure that she had a black sheep story.
She went outside to brainstorm with her friend, who suggested she tell the story of the time she went to a Jewish summer camp. Gross said her heart was pumping and she could feel her pulse, as she told the story of the time she and two other girls were isolated from the other 10 girls in their cabin at camp. The other campers did everything together—shared clothes, slept in each other’s beds, and were attached at the hip.
Unfortunately, they shared more than just memories. They also shared lice—except for Gross and her two friends. Being black sheep had saved the trio from an insect infestation in their hair, a point that elicited raucous laughter from the crowd on the second floor of the book shop.
While Gross’ story was generally lighthearted and brought the audience to laughter, some of the other tellers came to the front with a monologue that quieted the crowd, as the person at the mic offered up an incredibly vulnerable part of themselves.
When Daniel Goodwin was called to the front, he asked Okokon if he could bring his drink. Of course he could. Goodwin started off in his childhood, growing up in the South with a preacher for a father and a Sunday school teacher for a mother. Goodwin knew that he was gay, but his parents weren’t supportive. When he was a teenager, he met a boy. The pair talked all the time, even after the boy moved away—it was the dawn of the internet, after all.
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hey kept in touch sporadically, throughout college and after, even when one of them was in another relationship. The room let out an audible “aw” whenever Goodwin smiled or remembered a detail of the pair’s relationship. One day, Goodwin said, he went to check on his friend’s Facebook page. It said, “In memoriam.” Goodwin learned that the man he had kept in touch with for years had killed himself.
The room was still.
Goodwin said he didn’t know what to do. Was he supposed to call a family he had never met and tell them that he was in love with their son for years?
This is the kind of story that requires a strong host. Okokon said that she recognizes the vulnerability of the storytellers, especially when it’s a story that they may have never told before or when it drags up emotions they haven’t felt in a long time. At the same time, Okokon loves when stories like these prompt someone else to tell for the first time. Goodwin actually came to the Massmouth story slam on a date with Angel A., a man who told a story a few turns later.
“I really love when something from a story sparks someone else to come up and tell for their first time,” Okokon said. “I think tonight was a great example of how you can just show up to a show and end up telling a story. I really enjoy experiencing people who are doing that.”
Telling stories like these is a fast way to get to know a person—it seemed that everyone in the room knew more people than just the ones they arrived with. Okokon said it might sound like a cliché, but Massmouth really is a community.
“Everyone in this room that I know, I’ve met through storytelling,” she said, gazing around the room.
In the spring, they have their Big Mouth Off, which invites the winners of every competition that year to come back and perform for a chance to be the ultimate champion. After the competition last year, around 20 of them went out to eat on a whim, pulling tables together and enjoying each other’s company. Okokon has a tarot card app on her phone, and she checked the date scheduled for the 2019 Big Mouth Off. The three of cups came up, which signals that your community will come together.
“All of us, to some extent, know each other,” Okokon said. “We’ve gotten to know each other because we’re all listening to each other’s stories. It’s a cool thing.”
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Featured Image by Colleen Martin / Heights Editor