Guest Columnist

Be part of our story. It's your story too

Keynote speaker Akwi Nji, who is the founder and executive director of local nonprofit The Hook speaks about her career path at a pitch event called Minnow Tank at the Mount Mercy University Graduate Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Apr. 7, 2016. The event was the culmination of several months worth of coaching by students at Iowa BIG  to small teams of middle  school girls, in which the teams pitched a project idea to a panel of judges in hopes of taking home prize money to fund their projects. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Keynote speaker Akwi Nji, who is the founder and executive director of local nonprofit The Hook speaks about her career path at a pitch event called Minnow Tank at the Mount Mercy University Graduate Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Apr. 7, 2016. The event was the culmination of several months worth of coaching by students at Iowa BIG to small teams of middle school girls, in which the teams pitched a project idea to a panel of judges in hopes of taking home prize money to fund their projects. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

When I founded The Hook in 2016, I was eager to offer the Cedar Rapids area high quality events during which members of our community could creatively tell their personal stories. As part of that mission, The Hook was committed to helping writers of all ages and levels of experience hone their craft on the page and on the stage, offering a range of workshops, readings, and performances with guest wordsmiths from around the country, and more.

But after three years, I realized ICR was still missing something in the live literature scene: a team devoted to producing events solely of personal narrative stories. I started to consider how to fill that void. What if I recruited a team of top-flight writers and speakers who would perform regularly, maybe four or five times a year? What if the team was an eclectic group of writers and creatives whose backgrounds and storytelling styles varied wildly. Elements of the idea, though, were similar to SPT Theatre’s programming, so I met with my friend and SPT’s Jane Pini to discuss the idea over beers. I described my vision for a series devoted to well-crafted, personal narratives spoken in an intimate space about who we are in this time and place and acknowledged that elements of the model are reminiscent of SPT’s The Writers’ Room. “We do comedy,” she said. “What you do is totally different. Go for it.”

“Go for it” is what she and SPT Theatre have so graciously encouraged me to do with my art since I started with them on stage more than 10 years ago. They gave me the space, opportunity, and permission to hone my craft and find my voice when others had not. And so I’ve committed to doing this for others through a new storytelling troupe called Truths Be Told.

The art of storytelling is primal, sacred work. It’s entertaining and yet transcends entertainment. Science tells us that well-crafted, emotionally charged personal narratives have the ability to foster empathy and trust. Truths Be Told is devoted to personal, true stories that illuminate and investigate the present moment and its connection to our individual memories of the past in order to build a more inclusive future. The project is grounded in some unassailable beliefs: no single narrative tells the whole story; no single person knows the whole tale; and no single point of view encompasses the whole picture.

We are dedicated to the diverse stories that make up the whole. The Truths Be Told troupe has been crafted with intentionality to ensure the core members of the corps complement and challenge one another. We balance different perspectives against a shared vision of the power of stories. The troupe and select guests will create and perform four to five shows each year, inviting the audience to laugh, to cry, to reconsider, to connect, and to find the universal in the personal and particular in order to build community.

Truths Be Told will take to the stage at Matthew 25 for the first time on Wednesday, September 18, telling personal stories around the theme of “proof.” There will be five open mic slots available at the top of the show for community members who have something to share. Live music will be interspersed among the spoken pieces.

So, who might enjoy these gatherings? It probably won’t surprise you that we think everyone will. But to be a bit more specific: If you are a fan of local theater organizations like TCR or Riverside Theatre; if you enjoy attending readings at Prairie Lights or Next Page Books or the area libraries; if you enjoyed Brucemore’s Cabaret in the Courtyard Words and Songs event; or if you are a regular at SPT performances, then Truths Be Told is for you. If you are looking for a community where writing, speaking, and sharing are valued as a way forward in difficult times, then Truths Be Told is for you. And if you like your entertainment to be both thoughtful and thought-provoking, then Truths Be Told is for you.

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The idea for our first theme, “proof,” arose from a conversation about the inaugural performance and how it would be a “proof of concept” for the Truths Be Told idea. After all, it won’t be enough for the five of us in the troupe to believe in this endeavor. We need you to join us. We invite you to fill those open mic slots to ensure we’re telling as inclusive a story as we possibly can. We need you to laugh and listen and think along with us. And we need you to witness what we do well and help us do it better.

We hope you’ll be a part of our story. After all, it’s your story, too.

Akwi Nji is a writer, performer, and communications director for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. She was awarded a 2016 Iowa Arts Council Artist Fellowship and was recently appointed to the Iowa Arts Council Board. She is the founder of The Hook which was a 2017 recipient of The Gazette Business Excellence Award for Inclusion.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.