For the last several months, nine African American men -- fathers -- have been workshopping their own personal stories of fatherhood. “The Fatherhood Manologues” is a Moth-style storytelling project that has its virtual debut on Father’s Day.
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Malik Champlain is one of the storytellers. For his “manologue,” he chose to address his then yet-to-be-born son Mason.
“Never doubt yourself, and always remember, you’re your Daddy’s son, that means you’re powerful, beyond measure,” said Champlain, staring intently into the video camera as he stands in front of the carousel in Hartford’s Bushnell park. “You’re a leader, you’re a protector, you’re special. You’re loved and one day you will change the world. It’s going to be hard to be my son, because my expectations are high, but it’s gonna be harder when I’m gone, so I’m preparing you for when I die.”
Mason is now 4 weeks old. Champlain says the idea for his manologue came to him early on a Sunday morning. As his pregnant wife slept, he thoughts turned to his son.
“I want to tell you how I’m feeling now about you, I want to tell you about all the things I want to do with you, I want to tell you about the things I’m scared for you for, you know having that real and vulnerable conversation.”
“The Fatherhood Manologues” is the brainchild of Abdul-Rahmaan Muhammad, executive director of My People Clinical Services in Hartford. He said the idea for the project came out of a very productive “Fatherhood Engagement Program” group session he ran last year.
“We had just wrapped up a 20-week curriculum, and I wanted to keep them together, but I wanted to do something different,” explained Muhammad, “and I said ‘OK, over the next month what you guys are going to do is, you are going to come up with a story. We are going to videotape you doing the story live.’ And we actually did it.”
Muhammad saw the potential for this type of storytelling, not only as a therapeutic tool for the storytellers, but also as a work of performance art, much like Public Radio’s The Moth Radio Hour.
“I’m all about changing narratives, like I want people to be able to see Black men fully, not only when we die, not only when we’re mad, not only when we are in handcuffs, but when we are being our genuine true selves, when we are talking about the love of our lives, like our children.”
Muhammad contacted nine peers, Black men he felt would be good storytellers. He enlisted the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford to help craft their stories into works of art. The storytellers presented their rough drafts to an enthusiastic crowd at USJ back in February. The experience of being in front of a live audience invigorated the storytellers.
So, for the next several months the men were guided by storytelling coach and “Moth Champion” Christopher Rivas and theater director Godfrey Simmons. Simmons found perfecting these stories and getting them ready for the stage to be a pretty easy lift.
“When we’re in the zone, and we’re writing about something we really care about, it tends to end up being really artful,” said Simmons. “So, our jobs as coaches was to really find the poetry, find those spots that they already intrinsically worked into the piece, and then to help them really illuminate that in the performance.”
Like they have been for the rest of us, the last few months have been challenging for the storytellers -- COVID-19 forced them to get together on Zoom rather than their usual face-to-face meetings, and most recently the group was rocked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Champlain said those challenges have only strengthened the bonds among these nine men.
“You start building this camaraderie, and this admiration for each other, and I’m growing from that, and our relationships are growing from those things where we find ourselves doing things outside of just the manologues,” he said.
The “Fatherhood Manologues” videos will be released online on Father’s Day, but the project is far from over. The initiative will be part of a yearlong project at the University of Saint Joseph. The university’s Department of Social Work will integrate the manologues into some of its courses in the fall. And USJ’s Autorino Center for the Arts is planning a live performance once it is safe. Next week, on June 24, the stories will also be the subject of Hartford Stage’s next “Scene and Heard: Live!” virtual cocktail hour.
You can see all nine videos starting Sunday on Facebook.