Bailey’s Cafe Intergenerational Oral History Project

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Begun in January 2006, our Intergenerational Oral History Project is a work in progress, which we see evolving over the next year.  The full title of the project as originally conceived is:  Preserving the Past: Exploring the Future:  an Intergenerational Oral History Project.  The basic goals are to build community, build relationships and learn about the history of Central Brooklyn, especially the neighborhoods of Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, where Bailey’s does most of its work. This summer we ran a six-week program which included ten young people ranging in age from fifteen to nineteen and the elders (about twenty-five participated during the summer) at the Albany Senior Center.  The summer program focused on the connections between the generations as we collected our own stories, the stories of the youth and the elders looking for common threads.

We began the program by allowing each young person the opportunity to share intimately the important aspects of their life, using artifacts as props for their story. Everyone had as much time as they needed as well as additional time for a Q & A.  This enabled us, the core group of youth, and the two adult supervisors—Stefanie Siegel, President of Bailey’s and Kymbali Craig, Creative Director, to form a bond and gain a deeper understanding of each person’s personality quickly.  The elders, on the other hand, were interviewed by the young people after we brainstormed some pivotal, open-ended questions which would help focus their stories.

During this process of storytelling, the young people in particular were forced to a certain extent to take on some deep reflective work and to reveal some aspects of their lives that were painful and not fully understood but a significant part of the self they were struggling to become.  The elders’ stories in contrast were fuller (due obviously to their age and longevity) and more varied.  This process underlined an important aspect of our project—everyone’s story matters in building the oral history—we all have something to learn and something to teach.

The youth received transportation, lunch and a weekly stipend. The young people took part in a number of workshops on health and nutrition at the Hattie Carthan Community Garden, where Bailey’s has a plot.  We also exposed the youth and some of the elders to theatre events that were similar in nature—directly and indirectly—to the concept we were moving toward for our final performance piece.  The final performance was a collage of original music and song; a video montage of the interviews and historical footage as well as original photographs from New Orleans as one of our youth was able to spend a week early in July, where he continued to collect the stores of people he met while assisting with the clean up from Hurricane Katrina—an experience he turned into a narrative which we in turn transformed into a theatre piece.  The performance also included original poetry from both youth and elders, a tribute to the power of family or lack there of and a talk show spoof called “New Skool, Old Skool”—which highlighted changes (and connections) between the music, dance, fashion, and language of our differing generations.

The goal is to continue to expand and enhance this work, bringing in the voices of more youth and elders and strengthening the technical and artistic aspects of the piece.  The process of building the piece is as important as the performance.  The youth gained new confidence, and a deeper understanding of themselves, they learned to look at elders in a new light and to take on the challenge of sharing their thoughts and feelings through their daily reflective writing assignments.  Moreover we all had to learn how to be open to each other’s viewpoints and to respect others’ opinions even if we didn’t agree.  Meanwhile, many of us were learning how to use improvisation and other acting techniques for the first time as well as creating self-portraits, conducting interviews, writing music, poetry and lyrics.   The elders took part in our rhythm circles, shared their views on hip hop culture, and created their own self-portraits and poems.  They learned to see young people in a new way: to see them as individuals not stereotypes, worthy of their respect; further, that there is reciprocity to their relationship—each one teach one.

February 2007, Motherless/Fatherless Child—based on the life of Ms. Dora Davis was performed at Abrons Art Center at Henry Street Settlement House, opening for Progress Theater’s Peaches.   See attached news article.  Under the direction of Kymbali Craig, our Creative Director, twelve young people reenacted a small snippet of Ms. Dora’s life growing up as a sharecropper’s child in North Carolina.  We went on to perform this work at the Jackie Robinson Center in Harlem, the Albany Senior Center and Von King Park.

Spring 2007, through a collaboration with Elders Share the Arts, we piloted “Bearing Witness:  Faces of War” a series of conversations where youth and veterans had the opportunity to share their stories and assumptions about military life and war.  This project later became part of our larger oral history project, as the young people involved created, with the guidance of Kymbali Craig, a composite improvisational piece from the Vietnam Veterans stories.  By sharing their individual histories they created a shared history.

The oral history project remains a work in progress. We are pursing funding so that we can expand the connections and build deeper relationships between the youth and elders, creating multimedia performances that share with our community that significance of this connection.  Please support our groundbreaking and compelling work.

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