“We told everybody that we slept together. But it was always on the sofa in front of the TV, fully dressed.”
If you don’t know many elderly people, you may be surprised to hear that comment from the lips of a lady of 95. Or this observation, from a man who spent most of eight and a half decades with the wrong idea about his heritage: “I still don’t know who I am. But I understand much better why I am. I have survival skills because I was an outsider.”
And if you’ve seldom spent time around folks over 70, you owe yourself a visit to “Acting Our Age: A Century of America in Seven Voices” this week at McGlohon Theater.
These seven voices, all residents of Aldersgate, justify the nickname “walking history books.” That’s what Aldersgate COO Jeff Weatherhead called them when he suggested to gerontologist Lyndall Hare that their stories should be captured in some lasting way.
She’d been on the production team for “Street SmARTs,” a series of narratives by homeless people that director Steve Umberger shaped into a presentation. She contacted Umberger, and his company, The Playworks Group, began to turn decades of collective memories into a cohesive whole.
They placed an open call for participants and sat back to see what would happen. Perhaps 40 people responded, though time constraints and memory impairment eventually thinned the group to seven, ranging in age from 73 to 95. They came back weekly for a year to refine the final script, which covers nearly every major event in American history since the Jazz Age of the 1920s — but always through anecdotes that personalize this septet.
“I said to them, ‘You have total editorial powers, but the tough stuff you went through will be the most dramatic elements,’ “ Umberger recalled. “I’d ask, ‘What’s the most fun you’ve ever had? What’s the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced? What’s your biggest regret?’ “
Along the way, he learned that Dot Horne had stood atop B-52s as a Rosie the Riveter worker during World War II, Norman Pollock helped to reshape a neighborhood during the civil rights era and June Connerton “grew up at 45” (in her words) when she raised her children during a work separation from her spouse.
Hare soon realized these seven narratives would run back to colonial times and forward to the present. Betty Cowan now lives virtually in the backyard of her ancestor’s colonial home, The Hezekiah Alexander House. And as economic mobility decreases in 21st century America, we might be able to learn something from these seniors’ experiences.
“How, in one generation, did they get out of poverty?” Hare asked. “The G.I. Bill. Will they be the last generation that can do this? They worked hard, but they lived in a different time, when that kind of help was available.” Two were children of Armenian and Syrian immigrants, who’d face a harder time entering the United States today.
Hare, who guides older people through “life reviews” in her profession — especially events that caused grief — helped the seven shape story arcs. Umberger tightened and interwove monologues, preserving tension and humor. The experience proved satisfying and troubling for the elders.
“We were given a topic to start: What would you say to your younger self, if you could give advice?” said June Connerton, who became an actress at 60. “I spent a lot of time thinking before committing anything to paper. To go back to things I’d rather forget, things I have not consciously thought of in a long time, caused some distress. I wondered, ‘Why am I doing this?’
“I realized that sometimes the toughest situations are the best (for you), if you come out on top of them. They happen for a reason you didn’t see at the time. By doing this, I’ve learned that I’m a work in progress and always will be. There’s always something left for me to discover.”
Pollock, a historian and teacher, occasionally measured his memories against the diary he has kept for 69 years, since he was 17. He looked back through the eyes of “a realist who can accept myself, faults and all, for what I am.
“Lyndall (taught us) about letting the past go and forgiving ourselves. I faced up to things I’m not particularly proud of, broken relationships and friendships lost because I was arrogant. I grew up in a home in Philadelphia (among viewpoints) that were not wide-ranging or open-minded, and I had a lot to overcome.”
Both he and Connerton knew the 18-month process probably represented a significant percentage of their remaining time on Earth. But as Pollock said, “If anyone can learn from what we’ve done, it’s worth it.”
Other elder care centers can apply this process, because Hare created a template and a teaching curriculum. And audiences may learn something about the Greatest Generation (and in two cases, folks young enough to be its kids) as stories of triumph and travail roll by.
Yet the show’s not just a personalized history lesson: It’s a reminder that seniors don’t calcify when their gaits slow down.
‘Acting Our Age’
WHEN: 7 p.m. June 19-20.
WHERE: McGlohon Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
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