“When you hear this young man’s story and you hear him choke with emotion, it’s hard for anyone to say, Oh, this is just an opportunist coming to America to steal American jobs.”
A young African man attempts to flee conflict in his native Congo, huddling under a kitchen table with his little brother as their father is murdered mere steps from their home. This is not the plot of a dystopian novel, but rather details of real events seared deep into the memory of one storyteller.
WORLD Channel’s Stories From the Stage television series began with a vision. Executive producers Liz Cheng and Patricia Alvarado Núñez are steadfast in their belief that stories can help bridge differences in an increasingly divided world. As GBH producers who work on daily newscasts filled with conflict and discord, they were inspired to facilitate opportunities for empathy.
“When you hear this young man’s story and you hear him choke with emotion, it’s hard for anyone to say, Oh, this is just an opportunist coming to America to steal American jobs,” Cheng said in an interview. “We hope to provide that kind of understanding, in a way with real stories, true stories.”
The latest audio component of the multimedia series, Stories From the Stage: The Podcast, premiered over the summer, in collaboration with GBH. A partnership with story production outfit Tell & Act, the program released weekly episodes through September, with each installment co-created, co-produced, and hosted by Cheng and Alvarado Núñez spotlighting a diverse lineup of guest speakers, each with seven minutes to present their stories.
From a lighthearted and heartwarming account of opening for Bob Dylan, to missed connections, to scathing memories of racism, Cheng and Alvarado Núñez were able to push critical stories out to the public when many people needed them most, amidst the disorder caused by COVID-19.
While the first season of the podcast was recorded in-studio, the Stories From the Stage team pivoted to accommodate storytellers with remote mini-studios, sending cameras and iPads and upgrading unstable internet connections in some homes. Cheng and Alvarado Núñez even recorded their intros from inside closets in their own homes. Many episodes of the second season were ultimately re-done and produced with professional equipment; still, they made sure the proper tools were accessible to their community collaborators the whole time.
“The way that we describe it is all the differences that make a difference,” Cheng said. “Gender, race, religion, ethnicity, LGBTQ+, disabilities, access to opportunity, access to justice, socioeconomic level—all those things that oftentimes don’t get talked about. Rather than pointing out differences, we’re celebrating differences and pointing out what we have in common. They’re really all things that in the end, it’s the human spirit that comes through.”
“Growing Up Black,” a special episode from the Stories From the Stage TV series, was inspired by the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and developed following the same spirit of finding common ground and community. Storytellers Ben Cunningham, Angie Chatman, and Susanna Schmidt shared their experiences from growing up in predominantly white neighborhoods, including encounters with police and white privilege. A live Zoom broadcast of the episode was well received, with hundreds of attendees coming together for an opportunity to not just be entertained, but to learn and empathize.
“I asked [Angie], How do people react to this story?” Cheng said. “It’s really a tale of two cities. Her white friends can’t believe this happened to her … whereas her Black friends said, That happened to me, or, That happened to my cousin. This is not new … You never know when something like this is gonna happen. … That story is crucial to bring people together who might be very disparate in understanding that this is going on, to give white people insight into what’s happening and for Black people to say, Yes, I can commune with this, I understand this, I know exactly how you’re feeling.”
In a followup to that popular cast, Angie Chatman returned to Stories From the Stage: The Podcast to revisit the story she shared, and to speak more generally about America’s progress, along with Valerie Tutson, a storyteller who shares African history with young Black students.
“There are hundreds of reasons why people want to tell stories, but one of the common themes is to make a difference in someone else’s life,” Cheng said. “It’s cathartic for some and for other folks, it’s like Angie. I asked her if it was cathartic to tell this story, or was it difficult? She said, ‘Every time I tell this story, it’s difficult.’”
“We honor what they do and they share these difficult moments, wonderful moments, tragic moments,” Cheng added, “all to encourage other people who might be going through the exact same situation.”
In addition to the WORLD Channel website, you can listen to Stories from the Stage: The Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Pocket Casts. The award-winning TV series returned to GBH and other PBS stations nationally this month.