First Person Arts is Philadelphia’s premiere storytelling organization and the producers of the weekly First Person Arts Podcast and the annual First Person Arts Festival. Now in its 14th year, the festival starts this week and features the stories of both artistic luminaries and ordinary people.
This year’s tagline, “Share Life,” is inspired by FPA’s mission of connecting culturally diverse people through the power of personal storytelling, as well as popular trends of documenting and sharing life through social media.
“Our hope is to balance out the narrative and share the strategies that people can use to overcome trauma,” said Jamie J. Brunson, FPA executive director and the festival’s artistic director.
“First Person Arts — our yearlong program and particularly this festival — is a platform to amplify these voices,” continued Brunson, an award-winning playwright. “We hear stories of triumph and accomplishment, which is happening every day.
“I want to amplify that — and I want to see us have a stronger community as a result of simplifying those voices. We want readers to be part of the story that we tell around the country and around the world with First Persons Arts programming,” she said.
A 2013 Philadelphia Magazine “Best of Philly” Award nominee, FPA has been the host of this unique event that is dedicated to presenting art based on real life stories by well-known and emerging artists working across various artistic disciplines. At its twice-monthly StorySlams, FPA presents an array of storytellers in order to transform the drama of real life into memoirs and documentary art.
“The African-American community is very important to me, but as I have grown I’ve come to cherish the viewpoints of other folks as well,” said Brunson. “When I came into this position, I said, in this city we need to be uplifting voices that are reflective of the demographic of this city, which means we have to diversify the voices that are being amplified through the work. That’s when the real outreach began.”
The 2015 lineup features artists from Philadelphia and elsewhere along the East Coast. On Nov. 6, Ursula Rucker performs her solo show, “My Father’s Daughter,” about a family struggling to overcome the effects of domestic abuse and addiction, while learning to forgive.
“That is an important story because it is dealing with the abuse of addiction in the home,” noted Brunson. “A lot of us deal with trauma coming up, but Ursula’s message is how do we learn how to forgive and move on. We are always shining the light on what’s wrong, but how do we get through it? Ursula is talking about that in her show.”
“Women on the Revolution” will feature Sonia Sanchez, along with Kathy Engel of the Tisch School of the Arts, Delaware Poet Laureate JoAnn Balingit and award-winning poet Hila Ratzabi on Nov. 11.
“I asked Sister Sonia to bring in a group of authors, artists, activists to talk about, from their perspective, the revolution from the eyes of women,” said Brunson.
Germantown native Bilal and North Philly’s Freeway headline the second installment of “BEyond Expectations: Engaging Males of Color” show on Nov 14 at Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
“The negative images of African-American males that are proliferating in the media ¯ not all the media, but a lot — and we’re bringing celebrities and local men together to share stories about overcoming obstacles and thriving,” said Brunson. “We’re are putting a very different story onstage than what you might see on the evening news.”
The artistry of vocalists Ruth Naomi Floyd, Romona Riscoe Benson and V. Shayne Fredrick, David Ransom, along with pianist Barry Sames, will shine as they combine personal storytelling with heart-pounding music on Nov. 12.
“Something a little lighter, but still powerful, is First Person Arts in Concert,” said Brunson. “We’re bringing Ruth Naomi Floyd, who is a Philly native and international jazz vocalist, recording artist and composer, and she’s pulling together and ensemble of powerhouse voices who are going to tell personal stories and share different perspectives of love.”
The festival will also include food-based events, theatrical and storytelling presentations, author events, visual arts, and State Farm Foundation-supported classes and workshops.
“One thing is very clear,” said Brunson. “We are liking, favoriting, following, commenting and connecting across platforms and devices like never before. These trends reaffirm to us that people want to share life, and everyday people are becoming documentarians of our age through technology, which is really an exciting and empowering concept.
“This year’s festival is a tribute to this movement — to sharing life, and maybe even making new friends and understanding ourselves a little better along the way,” she added.
The 14th annual First Person Arts Festival, presented through the PNC Arts Alive Initiative, takes place from Nov. 4-15 at several venues across Philadelphia, including the African American Museum, Christ Church Neighborhood House, Head House Books, Plays & Players and World Cafe Live.
For more information, visit firstpersonarts.org.