By Summer and Santee Frazier
Tales from the Salt City, a production created by acclaimed director Ping Chong, ran from October 14-November 2 downtown at the Syracuse Stage. The performance included seven cast members from various ethnic backgrounds and nationalities which included: African American, Cambodian, Sudanese, Mexican, Cuban, Macedonian and Native American. While those attending such an event at the Stage would expect a play with actors, sets, and musical accompaniment, Tales from the Salt City was a minimalistic and based on the stories of those who participated (who were not actors by trade but members of the Syracuse Community at large).
The each caste member’s stories were told collectively, and written as such by Ping Chong. The actual writing of the script involved Chong interviewing each cast member, with each member orally telling their life story and how they came to live in the Syracuse area. The dramaturge (an expert in theater) for the production, Kyle Bass, wrote: “Listening to the interviews, how they told their stories and sometimes surprised themselves with the urgency to tell, I came to understand that sharing one’s story can sometimes be a necessary act of bravery.” From these interviews Chong himself translated the stories into a coherent production.
Our very own Jeanne Shenandoah represented the Onondaga nation and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in the performance. She did this by not only telling her own family history, but the history of the Six Nation Confederacy. For Jeanne it was necessary that someone from the nation be a part of this production, and after searching out a willing participant, to no avail, she decided to take on the role herself.
One of the most memorable moments of the story was when the caste member Jose Miguel Hernandez, originally from Cuba, spoke of his grandmother. That one day a lady came to their house begging for food, and his grandmother only had two sausages. Instead of turning the lady away she pleaded to the lady that she only had one sausage to spare, and the other was for her grandson, Miguel. After the lady left she grandmother explained: Miguel, when the sun rises, it rises for everyone. And for Miguel this meant that we should always be willing to share what we have, and help those in need.
The emotionally charged performance kept the audience engaged for the entire ninety or so minutes it lasted, and as each story was told, preceded with the refrain “what and I?” , you could hear the laughter and awe in reaction to such a compelling oral narrative. It’s fitting that this history of Syracuse be told orally, after all that’s how Native people survive, through story, and community. At the beginning of the performance each cast member introduced themselves in their native tongue, and at the end induced themselves again, but English. This action symbolized what the entire production was about: that while our stories may be different, if we are at least willing to share our experience we all might come to a better understanding of one another. .