The Power of the Witness Print
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 28 February 2006 18:00
The idea started with a traffic jam. “This was two years ago,” says local poet and storyteller Shellie Moore Guy, regarding the origin of her domestic-abuse performance piece Healing Waters: I Will Carry My Sister’s Pain. (It will be performed on Saturday, March 11, at Greater Antioch Baptist Church in Rock Island.) “It was the year they were doing all the heavy bridge construction. I’d left St. Ambrose to go back to Rock Island, and it took at least 10 or 15 minutes to get over the bridge.”

On her Friday-morning radio program “Ebony Expressions” (heard on KALA 88.5 and 105.5 FM) Guy discussed, with two female guests, “Beauty Inside & Out” and “The Spiritual Aspects of Gardening,” which touched on several topics – spirituality, triumph through hardship – that would form the template for much of Healing Waters. “The hour was amazing,” Guy says, but it wasn’t until later – with time to reflect while inching through traffic – that the conversation had its full impact.

“I had this vision,” she says, “of this performance where I would interview women who were domestic-violence sufferers. I would create some kind of an artistic monologue, staying very close to their story, and one of the other women would tell their story.” Guy envisioned a performance piece – encompassing storytelling, song, and dance – that would “demonstrate the idea of the healing power in not only telling your story, but the power of the witness, because the witness is just as powerful as the testimony. To have someone say, ‘I witness your pain. I empathize.’

“But this,” she adds, “was the ultimate in empathy, because it’s another survivor telling your story.”

And a story that Guy knew well. “I’m also a survivor,” she reveals, having herself been the victim of domestic abuse some 25 years ago, “and I have presented a couple performances in the past three or four years where I did tell my story. And so, because of that, I thought, ‘Hey, I can do it.’

“By the time I got across the bridge,” she says, smiling, “I had this and I was so amped. I could feel it. I could see it. I believed that it would be something that would help other people.”

Guy applied for, and received, a grant from Quad City Arts to work on the project, began developing interest among friends and fellow artists, and found that what she thought would be the toughest challenge of all – finding women to share their domestic-abuse stories – was, unfortunately, all too easy; several friends who were initially contacted about performing in Healing Waters – as singers or dancers – came to her saying, “Well, I have a story.”

“That just took me aback,” she says, shaking her head. “Now why did I think I could have a story and not them?”

Guy chose seven women to join her in the project, and through transcripts of taped interviews, began to write their monologues. (Guy says that the women – most of whom had no previous stage experience – found that having their stories read by another survivor eased much of the project’s emotional burden, the spirit being, “Maybe I don’t want to tell my story, but one of my sisters can.”)

Yet there was a stumbling block in the writing process that Guy didn’t foresee: herself.

“I got stuck,” she admits. “I wasn’t ready, and I thought I was.” The project languished for many months – “every single one of those women that I started off with waited for me,” she marvels – until Guy was emotionally prepared to continue.

“It was tough,” Guy says. “It was tough. But then I’d look at the tapes, I looked at the stories, and then I’d remember the voices of the women who said, ‘Yes, we gotta do this. Yes, I want to be a part of this.’

“I had to go back to the simple idea on the bridge. It was always about the story, about the testimony and the witness.” She laughs. “It was shit or get off the damned pot. And believe.

“It was hard as hell,” she continues, “but I kept the faith in front of me, the belief in the original idea. Keep it simple. Keep it real. And the sky just started opening.”

Healing Waters, which is performed – with accompanying music and dance – in the style of reader’s theatre, was first produced at Black Hawk College last October, in conjunction with that month’s designation as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Guy says that, for her and her fellow survivors, the experience was less emotionally draining than exhilarating. “Every day it was like, ‘Look at us. Look. At. Us. We are here, and we’re telling our stories.’

“And we got so much feedback from the audience,” she says. “They’d say, ‘You gotta take this on the road, you gotta keep doing this.’ And we all agreed.”

Hence, the first of what Guy plans will be many repeat performances of Healing Waters. “We’re now talking to some people at Augustana,” she says, adding that she hopes to see the piece performed in “churches and schools and colleges and community groups. … We’ll take this wherever.

“At some point,” she adds, “we want to be able to print this [script], but we want to be able to fold more women, more stories, into it. That’s the kind of project it is. Anyone can be on that stage and tell their story. Anyone. There’s healing in that.”

There’s also elation, and Guy reveals that it’s Healing Waters’ message of triumph – of the joy of survival – that she finds especially moving. “When you hear it,” she says, “you know it’s about the victory of not just surviving, but thriving.

“Some projects, I believe, are divinely ordered,” she says, “and therefore demand that you talk about them to as many people as you can. This [Healing Waters] had to be done. Because people need to hear this. Women and men and boys and girls need to hear this. And the more people you talk to about it, the more stories you reveal. The more people can say, ‘It happened to me.’”

Guy shares a poem by Audre Lorde that she recently discovered: “When I dare to be powerful – / To use my strength / In the service of my vision, / Then it becomes less and less / Important / Whether I am afraid.”

“Doesn’t that speak to it?” she asks, beaming. “This just says it all.”

Healing Waters: I Will Carry My Sister’s Pain will be performed at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 11, at Rock Island’s Greater Antioch Baptist Church, 929 14th Street. Tickets are $5, and further information is available by calling (563)650-0354.