“Tell me a story about your mother.”
Playwright Suzanne Beal spent much of the last year starting this conversation with the women of Frederick. She heard from a group of sixth-grade girls and a group of women in an assisted-living home one of them 100 years old. She listened to six sisters from a family of 14. She listened to women in a local book club and a group of college students.
The anecdotes, collected from a series of 10 story circles, made up of 90 women, all from Frederick and all from very different walks of life, are the basis for Beal’s latest production, “I Am (Not) My Mother,” opening Friday at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre.
“It has been the most wonderful, intellectual and emotional journey,” Beal says. That journey began over a year ago with a conversation between Beal and Maryland Ensemble founding member Gené Fouché.
Beal was looking for a project that would raise money for the Women’s Giving Circle an organization dedicated to promoting programming that enables and empowers struggling women in the community and Fouché was looking to do the same for the MET.
The idea to use story circles also appealed to both women. While Beal had never used the method in her work, she was interested in them. Fouché, on the other hand, was familiar with the concept which, as its name suggests, is a group of people sitting together and sharing their stories and eager to use circles again.
“We were interested in doing a piece based on story circles for a number of years,” says Fouché, the show’s director. “This seemed like a great way to achieve that.”
Beal, who sits on the community involvement committee for the Women’s Giving Circle of Frederick, mentioned the project at a luncheon for the group. She also put the word out at Frederick Community College, where she teaches English, and at a local book club meeting. Soon, several story circles had formed.
“I didn’t know what to expect and neither did anyone who came,” Beal says. “This is a very primal relationship ... there are deep feelings involved.”
While age, race and culture may have varied from one story circle to the next, and even sometimes within circles, Beal says the session she conducted followed a similar pattern. She would ask each woman in the group to share a story or a memory about her mother. Often the stories were neutral. Some were funny. Some were not. After each woman had shared her three- to five-minute anecdote, a dialogue usually developed naturally.
“Everyone has a story,” Beal says. “About clothes or hair ... that’s a big one with mothers hair.”
The stories and memories the women told revealed the varying relationships that daughters had shared with their mothers .
“In every circle I did, there were people who were close to their mothers and people who were not close at all,” Beal says. “There were people who were angry and there were people who had lost their mom.”
Each story circle lasted about an hour and a half, although Beal says some ran closer to three hours.
“It was very different from anything I’ve done before,” she says. “There was a lot of laughing and some tears.”
Based on her source material, Beal conceived several themes around which she would structure her nonlinear play. The most recurring and powerful theme has developed into a section in the show entitled “Dreams Deferred.”
“There were lots of stories about mothers having given up something, giving up a dream or sacrificing something to be a mom,” Beal says. “And no matter how close [daughters] were with their mothers [the daughters] say, ‘I wanted to do something different with my life.”
Both Fouché and her mother had the opportunity to participate in a story circle.
“I think it was a fantastic way for us to gather material,” Fouché says. “With the process of the story circles ... it becomes a really community-based project.”
Once Beal had completed the script, Fouché faced the challenge of taking the stories from a diverse pool of women and bringing them to life on stage with only five actors. But as she began to read the script, Fouché says she realized there weren’t as many differences as she had anticipated.
“When you put their stories down on paper, it doesn’t seem very diverse at all,” she says. “Language of relationships between mother and daughter is universal.”
The final product is a powerful collage of stories and images accompanied by original music by local singer/songwriter Jessica Bowers. In addition to writing the music, the Frederick-based Bowers joins the cast on stage as a performer.
Both Fouché and Beal anticipate that the deeply personal play will resonate with audiences. “I hope it would be a piece that mothers and daughters would see together and enjoy,” Fouché says.