“That was a spiritual experience.” The woman who spoke those words was visibly moved as she left the most recent live production of Muddy Turtle Talks, and that’s why I did this.
I created Muddy Turtle Talks in 2018 with my sister as a way to share the stories of a mostly Black, disinvested community in Charlotte: Enderly Park. Tuckaseegee Road is the main thoroughfare that runs through Enderly Park and the word Tuckaseegee is a Native-American term that means “the muddy turtle.” We have chosen to give love and light to the stories of the people who live, work and play in Enderly Park through this live story-sharing experience.
I listen closely to what people are saying when they walk out of the door of these events. I watch their movements. I eavesdrop on their exit conversations. I have an insatiable appetite for understanding which stories and moments move people. I like to experience them experiencing my work. I look to know what they are thinking and feeling when they don’t know that I’m watching them. And on Jan. 11, as one woman was preparing to leave the venue, I heard her say, “That was a spiritual experience. It felt like church,” and I knew exactly what she meant because I felt it too. In that room, that night, something was present there that was larger than all of us.
There was not an empty seat in the room. This revitalized church in the Optimist Park neighborhood of Charlotte was packed to the brim. By the time the show started, every seat in the venue was accounted for. Some folks were sitting on pews that had been set up in the back. Some were in the comfy big seats that had been arranged theater-style throughout the room. Everyone had a seat, and everyone was welcome.
We left the doors in the back of the room open. It was storming that night. Anyone who plans events knows that ambiance is everything. While we paid close attention to the lighting and the way that the room was set up, we could not have planned for the amazing backdrop that Mother Nature gifted us. The soothing and metaphorical rain shower pouring down outside helped set the scene.
For the first time ever, we decided to add musical storytelling to the show. There are so many ways to tell a story. Prior to this event, every past show included storytelling using storytellers and photography. For this show, I worked directly with Dawn Anthony. She is one of the most brilliant singers I’ve ever encountered. In planning for the show, I shared each story with her. I told her about the stories and I emailed her a copy of each story. She paired the stories with songs and that night, with a full five-piece band, she gave heart, soul and magic to the show in a way that we’ve never experienced before.
Each storyteller approached the stage by turn. They shared stories that I had obtained from residents in the neighborhood and written out. The stories all shed light on life in Enderly Park. They highlighted the good that is happening in a majority-Black community. They shared the moments that neighbors stood up and stood in for each other. They told tales of the businesses that provide goods for the community. They shed light on the organizations that are invested in the betterment of the community. Each storyteller gave breath and energy to the experiences of the real people who live in a neighborhood that deserves more than it has been getting.
That night was beautiful and transformative and important. It was important because it brought people from many different walks of life together. This very diverse group of individuals were not only entertained that night, they were informed and empowered. Some were reminded that their stories matter and that if they are willing to tell them, then there will be people there to listen. Some were reminded that their own personal privilege is real and that they have a responsibility to do something with that privilege to change the world. Some were uncomfortable because they came face to face with their own biases and both internalized and external racism. There was something there for everyone that night. It was one of the last in-person events that many of us would attend before the pandemic. It was the last time that we would sit shoulder to shoulder with strangers in the community and feel comfortable.
As I reflect on that night — the night that felt like, and was, a spiritual experience — I am reminded that before all of these life-changing things that have happened over the past few months, Black stories have always existed and always mattered. Black creatives, Black artists, Black storytellers have been speaking and singing and photographing and filming and drawing and dancing and painting and sculpting and cooking and directing our stories for generations.
We have always been here documenting our existence. We will continue to document our existence. For those who are seeking ways to understand us and support and celebrate us, look for our stories — the ones that are being shared by us — and prepare for a spiritual experience.
Want to hear more Black stories? Tune in to the first-ever fully virtual Muddy Turtle Talks event on Saturday, Aug. 1st at 6 pm live on Facebook. And stay tuned to Queen City Nerve for more Muddy Turtle Talks stories in the written word.