“We realized as we worked that my story was everyone’s story.”
That’s how comedian Billy Crystal described the creation of his Tony Award-winning one man show, “700 Sundays,” which was later produced by the HBO network, and is now available as a video.
Like life, the play makes us laugh and cry as Crystal recounts his family history, which includes the tragic, untimely death of his father.
Billy Crystal was 15 years old at the time.
But for me there’s something bigger than the fact that yes Billy Crystal’s story is the same story we all share.
Yes, we all have a place from which we came. And, yes, those places were populated by people and turned on events that shaped our lives.
But in “700 Sundays,” we are reminded of something much bigger and incredibly more important to our psyche as human beings, and that’s
the importance of story telling and of making art.
Because Billy Crystal is a funny and talented man, we expect him to tell a great tale, to make us laugh out loud. Collectively, as a society we have given him our permission, our permission to make art, and tell stories.
But more importantly, I think, we need to take his example and give ourselves permission to tell our own stories. Each of us has that right, and arguably, even that need, that need of human expression.
If we look back over time, we can see that our most ancient ancestors left us stories, and expressions about their lives in the form of drawings and carvings they left behind on cave walls and rocks.
I remember standing with Mr. Yogi in front of “News Paper Rock,” out in the BLM land outside of Moab, Utah, where early people of the area carved pictures into the stone.
I remember looking at it and the two of us trying really hard to figure out what the message was these people were communicating.
In the 21st Century it’s easy to get intimidated about sharing our stories. Countless amounts of money get
spent on music videos, films, dance sequences, beautiful books, etc., etc, etc.
One could easily feel as if his or her soul expressions are not worthy enough to express compared to the well-funded, highly produced professional art of the day – even with the advent of YouTube and the rest of the internet.
But I feel nothing could be farther from the truth.
Listening to Billy Crystal tell us, in his own words, that his Jewish family went out to celebrate “where all Jewish families go to celebrate -a Chinese restaurant,” reminded me that my own mid-20th-century, Southern Indiana, protestant, working-class family celebrated where all like families celebrated, at the houses of their Kentuckian relatives.
Crystal’s description of his loud, bawdy, eccentric Aunt Sheila, reminded me of my own giant-sized, Weslyan minister Uncle, who always spoke loud enough to make sure the sinners in the back pews could hear him. He delighted in taking me to public places and telling me how we could plot out a clever bank robbery.
I always was certain he was going to get me thrown in jail before I could get back home to the safety of my parents’ house.
I could go on and on with examples from the lives of my family and friends.
As a young woman I worked for many years as a community organizer, determined to change the world, and bring the light of needed social justice into dark places.
The memory makes me think of a woman named Louise White. If Louise is still with us, she’s about 95 years old now. Louise was part of a Senior Citizen Task Force I worked with on political issues around affordable health care for Medicare beneficiaries.
Louise and her buddies loved to do skits. Whenever we wanted to make a political point about something, the first words out of Louise’s mouth were, “We need to do a skit.”
Her favorite and most popular role was that of the “Social Security Lady.”
It gave Louise and her buddies a healthy way to vent about how mistreatment and bureaucracy affected their lives. Also, it gave them the opportunity to make others aware of important social issues which needed to be addressed.
In the example of “700 Sundays,” Billy Crystal explores story telling in the context of his family. He has furthered the case for the preservation of family history in a project called, “Finding our Families. Finding ourselves,” which is on display at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance.
In part, it teaches school children the importance of talking with family members to learn and preserve family history.
I want to take that encouragement a step further. I want to encourage all of us tell our stories about anything that moves us in the form of literature, music, visual arts, dance, architecture, whatever. The form doesn’t matter. Keeping human expression alive, does.