Every story got a standing ovation. That description alone will tell you just how ecstatic the audience was to listen to the talented lineup of storytellers at The Moth mainstage performance at the Tabernacle on Saturday night.
“The Moth Radio Hour” is a show recorded live in front of an audience and then broadcast to millions of National Public Radio listeners across the country. The show invites speakers of varying ages, experiences, and backgrounds to take the stage to tell a story inspired by a theme. For this performance, the theme was “Occasional Magic,” inspired by The Moth’s recently published book collection of stories of the same name.
These stories had moments of devastating truth, soaring uplift, disarming sadness, and unbridled hilarity. What united them all was their skillful narration and their roots in core issues: racism, homophobia, gender discrimination, and disability.
Violinist Mary Wolverton opened the show with a bright overture, followed by a warm welcome from Jay Allison, founder and executive director of Atlantic Public Media (APM), founder and executive producer of WCAI — the Cape and Islands NPR radio station, and producer of The Moth.
Allison noted that the setting of the Tabernacle, in the middle of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, was an appropriate setting for the show because “we are surrounded by houses with generous porches.” Porches were the inspiration for The Moth. More specifically, the location of the porch as a place where people gather to share stories late into the night, and where moths also gather and bump up against the porch lights.
Our boisterous host for the night was Peter Aguero, a Moth veteran storyteller from New Jersey. With this being his first visit to the Vineyard, he warmed up the crowd with jokes about how enchanted he was by the whimsical atmosphere: “I always thought that Martha’s Vineyard was Oz; like a place that didn’t really exist. I am so happy to be here. Apparently, the only way to express how happy you are to be here is to paint your house like a psychedelic candyland!”
With that, Aguero introduced the first storyteller, Phill Branch. Branch is a Moth GrandSLAM Champion, awardwinning film director, seasoned storyteller, and professor. He took us back to his high school senior prom, and told us how he came to terms with his sexuality. Branch was thrilled to design his own suit: custom-sewn in white flashy satin. He also designed his date’s mermaid-style gown using the same fabric as his suit, overlaid with pink lace.
“Now, at 16, I didn’t consiously identify as gay; I wasn’t there yet. But apparently I was so gay that I didn’t realize that designing my date’s dress and a satin suit for myself was essentially my coming-out quinceañera,” Branch said.
With a salon perm mishap, a “crooked suit with uneven hemlines,” and then his girlfriend’s rejection at the last minute, his perfect prom was sabotaged. He looked so ridiculous, he said, that his mother refused to hang his framed photo next to his other family members on the famed prom wall. Years later, Branch truly “came out to himself first.” And although his family did not accept him, he said, “I have my own walls now and I can hang anything I want.”
Next up was Samuel James, who told the story of how he realized his grandmother — “Grammy” — was not everything she seemed. The child of a black father and a white mother, James grew up visiting with his Grammy every Friday night and watching the TV show “Dukes of Hazzard” together late into the night. At the end of every visit, his Grammy would give him a small replica of the famous car driven on the show for him to play with.
It wasn’t until years later, James said, after his grandmother and mother died, that he realized the racially charged undertones of her actions. His grandmother’s family had been in America “since New England became New England” and she had never approved of her daughter marrying a black man. James realized that the Dukes of Hazzard car that she gave to him every week — painted with a Confederate flag on the roof, which he played with while singing the theme song “Dixie” — was a silent message to his father. The audience responded to his story delivery with awe.
Comedian Ruby Cooper followed with a little more levity. She began by telling the story of how she lost her virginity at age 16, and then found herself giving birth to a son with cerebral palsy six months later. With heart and wit she told anecdotes from her son Kirk’s childhood, and how she raised him like any other child; she would do anything for him. Then one Christmas, when he was all grown up, Cooper asked her son what he gift he wanted. “I want to have sex,” he told her. At first she reacted with alarm, but then gave in and put her all into finding someone for her son. Her bartender friend even put a tip jar out on the bar reading “Get Kirk Sex Fund,” which quickly filled “because that’s a cause that men believe in,” Cooper chuckled. Ultimately, Kirk did get what he wanted for Christmas, but you’ll have to listen to the recording to find out how. For the whole performance, Cooper had the audience doubled over with laughter; guffaws erupted from every aisle.
Reilly Horan orated next on her experience as a waitress on Nantucket. She zoomed in on one particular night when an inquisitive 6-year-old asked her “Are you a girl or a boy?” Horan brought us along her tumultuous journey of self-discovery, flashing back to moments in her childhood when she had frequently stepped over the boundaries of socialized gender roles. She ultimately turned to the young customer and said, “I identify as a woman, and I really like dressing like a tomboy, because it makes me feel more like myself.”
The final speaker of the night was a Martha’s Vineyard local with a rich past in activism. Caroline Hunter told us about her upbringing in the segregated South, always using the food counters, water fountains, and entrances marked “Colored.” When Hunter became the first female chemist of color at the Polaroid corporation, she was excited to work at a progressive company. At this time, the South African government was enforcing apartheid through passport identification. Hunter realized with horror that those passports contained photos taken by a Polaroid camera. What followed was her long fight against Polaroid to back out of South Africa. She ultimately succeeded, and went on to commit to many other actions against racism. The audience applauded heartily.
Some radio shows belong confined to the audio medium — the absence of the visual aspect lends a universal quality to the content. This is not the case with “The Moth.” The magic was still there, yet heightened by the energy of audience interaction.
On a personal note, seeing these stories told live had great significance to me. From the backseat of my family’s Honda Pilot, I grew up listening to Moth storytellers expatiate on the radio about their epiphanies, pet’s deaths, and quirkiest moments. To watch the show live was another experience altogether.
By the end of the night, the audience was so satiated with the storytelling that the final round of applause lingered long after the last speaker left the stage. Along with the rest of the crowd, this reporter was on her feet.