Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect date for the Story District kickoff party. The event was held Aug. 1, not Aug. 2. The story has been updated with the correct date.
It was the second Tuesday of the month, and Town Danceboutique was standing room only. The crowd was there for a monthly storytelling event put on by Story District — formerly known as SpeakeasyDC — an open-mike forum in which participants tell autobiographical tales based on a theme. This was the first show under the organization’s new name, which was announced with a kickoff party at Town in Northwest on Aug. 1 that included Hula-Hoops, free cupcakes and dancing the hora.
“We’ve been SpeakeasyDC for the last 10 years,” said Amy Saidman, artistic executive director for the group. “We started as one show once a month in a tiny place with about 50 people, and so Speakeasy was such a great name for that.”
The group, which averages 300 to 400 people at its monthly shows, now offers classes, corporate trainings and curated programs. In January, the Top Shelf show, a showcase of the year’s best stories, was held at the Lincoln Theater and drew 1,200, Saidman said. And the group’s Valentine’s Day special, “Sucker for Love,” sold out.
So, basically, SpeakeasyDC “outgrew” its name, Saidman said.
The new name, Story District, signifies a place to go for good stories. It will continue with the same offerings but will give more attention to demographic and geographic diversity. Story District’s audience and storytellers are mostly white professional transplants. The goal is to have the events be more reflective of the city’s population.
New board member Derrick Walton, a D.C. native, said diversity is something Saidman and the Story District team take seriously.
“There is still a young black, Latino, Asian community out there that I want to get onstage,” said Walton, head of global operations and implementation at Western Union Business Solutions.
Walton recalled a show at the Lincoln Theater in which a black gay man talked about his struggles with getting older.
“It wasn’t race. It wasn’t gay. It was ‘This is my life. This is who I am,’ and I appreciated that,” Walton said.
In May, SpeakeasyDC held its first show in Anacostia at the Arc on Mississippi Avenue. The theme was “Home Sweet Home: True Stories East of the River — About Place, Memory and the Meaning of Home.”
The all-black cast told stories about music, debutante balls and coming of age during the era of segregation. Most of the performers had never heard of SpeakeasyDC and went through an intensive five-week course to prepare for the show.
“Home Sweet Home” was so successful that Story District will present a monthly show, called “SouthSide Story Sessions,” at Uniontown Bar and Grill in Southeast from October through February.
The hope is that those who attend the sessions will want to participate as storytellers or go to other Story District shows, increasing the diversity of storytellers and audience members.
“I firmly believe that you need to walk in the room and see yourself to feel at home,” Saidman said.
Morgan Givens participated last week with an emotional piece on his attempted suicide at age 16. The 29-year-old African American transgender man spoke of his pain and the fear of rejection from his family. He described hearing his mother’s cry “and her saying she would rather have me as I was than dead and gone.”
Givens, a D.C. police officer, received a standing ovation.
“The whole point of storytelling is to hear stories, hear a variety of perspectives, get insight into different people’s lives,” Saidman said. “So it’s that much better if we make the effort to have as many perspectives as possible. It’s just a better experience for everybody.”
Joiner is a freelance writer.