— Virgil Duvalier

I’m not from Milwaukee. I’ve lived in this city twice for a combined 13 years but I’m not from here. The theme Ex-Fabula presented us with this evening was neighborhoods. Like many people, I’ve lived in them but didn’t really connect with people. Our two vibrant and authentic emcees, Megan and Christina, informed us to write down short stories. These were to be read on stage by us or others between performances. I was horrified. As an introvert, there’s little worse than sharing parts of your past to a room of strangers. Still, I filled out a small slip of paper. I wrote about a time when a woman gave me shoes when I was wandering around without any.

A neighborhood teen took the stage first, and he reminded me that this was less of a performance and more of a conversation. He gave us a story about a silly scam to turn single quarters into whole dollars and the crowd was cackling with laughter. It brought me back to my childhood when a quarter signified actual money and not simply a random sound in your pocket. He was bright and smiled often, like when your little brother would try to explain the latest wild situation.

There were a few adults who spoke. One was a teacher who told us of the time the city flooded and her block became rivers and lakes. Bored, her friends created a beach day and played in the pools that once were streets. As we all hoped, the neighborhood kids joined in the fun. They brought their swimsuits, noodles, and tubes. They came out and for a moment they all lived in Atlantis

Between storytellers, the emcees read the Ultrashorts we filled out earlier. Mine was one of them. The crowd laughed and more shorts followed; some were appreciations, others were complaints. One was about a cat named Bob. Another detailed how someone fell through the ice during a moment of foolishness. It was all relatable, embarrassing, and comforting. Well, for a while they were. As time went on and the audience started to feel more comfortable, there suddenly was room for stories that weren’t as lighthearted. A subtle wave of sadness hit as an emcee read one very Ultrashort: “I don’t know anyone in my neighborhood.”

There were many playful tales that evening that reminded us a neighborhood is much like a big house. Some of us would stay in the common room, others found places to hide away. Yet in that same breath, we were cautioned that sometimes this big house of ours can be dangerous. Many of the storytellers divulged painful truths that are so common among marginalized communities. We shared bitter laughter as we remembered how we picked out which guns were being shot; everyone had certain houses to avoid. All of the joy that evening still couldn’t mask some of the pain of living in places often forgotten about by government officials. It wasn’t meant to. I was left with a feeling of raw authenticity one normally can only get from a personal conversation.

This event is part of the Equity and Inclusion / Capacity Building project, which is funded by the Brico FundNorthwestern Mutual FoundationHerb Kohl Philanthropies, the Brewers Community Foundation, the Wisconsin Arts Board ­­with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts, We Energies Foundation and Kohl’s Cares.