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What does it mean to be Irish?

March 11, 2017

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Years ago, I was cast in a play as an Irish nun. As I prepared for the role, the accent seemed to come so easily: the rhythm, the sound of the words, the way the words came together in thoughts. I was puzzled; I’d never before played an Irish role. I wondered about it.

One day I was talking long distance to my mother on the phone. I happened to mention the play – and the accent. There was a pause on the other end of the line.

Well, you do know, dear…that your grandfather was full blood Irish.”

You never told me that!”

You never asked.”

My grandfather died when I was a small baby. Mother had always spoken about him with great affection, but no lineage was ever discussed. I had always assumed that his family was English and Scottish like my grandmother’s. So…my grandfather was Irish; his family came from the same part of Ireland – County Mayo – as my character. I began doing some research – about the potato famine and the mass starvation and immigration it caused. I saw pictures of the immigrants on the boats; in long lines at the immigration center. I learned that, during that time, the population of County Mayo plummeted – and it did not get back to it’s original number until 1956.

Years later, I visited Ireland. I tried to find my grandfather’s family records, but was unsuccessful. But once again, there was something familiar about the land… and there was one unforgettable memory.

We were on a tour bus headed for the Aran Islands. We passed yet again one of those little plots of land marked by a fence of stone with a crumbling stone cottage inside it. The guide pointed it out – another small farm abandoned during the famine. And then he told a story….

It seems that his grandfather had one of these plots on his land. One day, when the guide was a young teenager, he casually remarked to his grandfather that he should knock the old place down; it was useless … an eyesore. His grandfather was furious… almost cuffed the boy as he shouted:

That’s someone’s home out there! Someday… someone from that family may come back. And if they do” – and he cursed and swore under his breath – “their home will still be here!!!’

To me, THAT’S what it means to be Irish.

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Three Storytellers/One Concert

February 26, 2017

On March 17th, Jill Johnson and two storyteller/musician friends will gather  at Ott and Murphy’s Wines at 204 1st Street in Langley, WA on Whidbey Island for “The Celtic Heart”, a special celebration in which they will tell tales and play music from Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales.

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Jill is a familiar face on Whidbey. She premiered two one woman shows there, both of which received national recognition, and has performed as an actress and storyteller at venues all over the island. A former teacher and international training consultant, Jill “recycles” her extensive international experience into her storytelling. She has performed and given workshops in eight states and in Africa, New Zealand, and the South Pacific.

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For 35 years, Allison Cox of Vashon Island has been sharing stories that touch the heart, sooth the soul, and celebrate the diversity of life. Storytelling also accompanied her 23 years as a health professional and inspires her work as the Coordinator of the Healing Story Alliance and editor of their journal. Allison is also a co-editor and contributing author for The Healing Heart books and she is currently on the board of the Seattle Storytelling Guild.

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Katherine Gee Perrone of Seattle is an award-winning storyteller for children and adults, a singer/songwriter, and an award-winning playwright. At Brigham Young University, she was on the founding board for New Play Project, a company dedicated to bringing new works to the stage. Her plays have been produced in Texas, Colorado, New York, Washington DC and here in Washington State. She teaches and writes creative dramatics curriculum for Stone Soup Theatre and recently received her MFA in Playwriting and Screenwriting from Lesley University.

Jill is delighted to be bringing her two friends to Whidbey. “When you put three storytellers like us together – sparks fly! It’s going to be a fun evening!” The program starts at 7:30 pm and reservations are recommended. Call 360-221-7131 for more information.

A Gathering

February 17, 2017

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“The Celtic Heart”

a concert of story and song honoring the
cultures of Ireland, Scotland, England,

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featuring three storytellers:
Allison Cox – Vashon Island
Katherine Gee Perrone – Seattle
and   Jill Johnson – Whidbey Island

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   Friday March 17th   7:30 pm
Ott and Murphy Wines
204 1st Street – Langley

                                                reservations are recommended: 360-221-7131

The March: January 21, 2017

January 22, 2017

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I am still exhausted. My feet hurt and every muscle in my body aches. A friend and I staggered off the Whidbey Island ferry and home about 7:30 pm. Then it was a hot bath – and in bed by 9 PM.

How do I begin to describe what it was like to march through the streets of Seattle with thousands and thousands of others?  Imagine walking beside 125 – 140,000 people who are – in that moment – members of your tribe? There were men and women, young and old, some with walkers or in wheelchairs, thousands sporting their pink “pussy hats”. There were four busloads from Whidbey: 224 people. Another 200 came by themselves: over 400 people from our little island.

The parade began with a strong contingent of First Nation women – and men. There were huge beautiful banners from every tribe, and drums – lots of them. The unified BOOM! of those drums galvanized everyone within earshot. I flashed back to many celebrations I had seen in Africa…the pounding of the drums… and the dancing. As the sound grew louder and louder, I thought, how wonderfully appropriate…that First Nation people should begin this historic march.

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

Everywhere you looked there were people… and signs. There were quotes from famous people… Martin Luther King…Goethe…John Kennedy…Plato. On the front page, the Seattle Times featured a picture of 7 year old Brinegar Darnell leading a chant of “Hey, hey…ho,ho…Donald Trump has got to go!” As we all walked down Jackson Street and then 4th Avenue, the line was three miles long. I remember passing an elderly couple sitting on the side of the street on their walkers. “Thank you for being here!” I yelled. They smiled and waved back. As we hit downtown and the tall buildings, there was a window washer perched outside, high up on a skyscraper. He waved frantically and we shouted back a response.

“Strong women: let’s honor them; BE them; raise them.”

The weather forecast had said cold and rainy. But the sun was warm on our faces (maybe a little too warm; we were over-dressed) and the sky was clear. As we passed Wells Fargo Bank, some young people in the fifth floor windows began dancing and waving and we waved back. There was a man on top of one of the skyscrapers frantically waving a huge flag. Someone finally spotted him and we all roared a response.

“Planned Parenthood saved my life.”

I spoke with the lovely young woman who carried that one. She was probably in her mid- 20’s. At 13, her mother had taken her to Planned Parenthood and told her that if she ever had questions to go there. At 16, she had an examination just before she went off to college – early. At 19, she went back to Planned Parenthood (among other reasons, because she was a college student and could not afford to go anywhere else) and had an exam. They found cervical cancer. She had an operation. And that was why she was marching – carrying a huge pink sign.

Incredibly, in the midst of this sea of people, there were reunions. I saw at least four people I knew – not from Whidbey. Everyone that I walked with had the same experience. As you were walking, you would hear this shriek, “DAVE!”, then a quick hug as the mass kept moving.

“I’m not usually one for signs…but GEEZ….” (from a young man)

“I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” (from an older man)

My friends and I stopped for a brief rest on the steps of a large building and gobbled some snacks and water. I couldn’t believe how hungry and thirsty I was. I also realized (once I sat down) that my legs were like Jello. But I was so pumped I think I would have just walked until I fell down. Thank God I brought my knee pads! Once I donned them, I had no further problems.

As we got underway again, another of the huge ROARS came down. These shouts would start at either the beginning or the end and just sweep down the lines of people. The noise was deafening – and marvelous!

“POWER  – People Of  Whidbey Elegantly Resisting.”

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We finally caught up with the huge pink banner that identified the Whidbey Island folks. I got some great shots as I walked backwards and all the people behind the banner waved and shouted.

“Equal rights and justice for all.”

When we finally reached Seattle Center, the endpoint, we plopped down on some rocks outside the gates and watched. We thought we were in the middle of the march. But as we sat, people kept coming…and coming…and coming. We sat or stood there for an hour and a half and the marchers just kept coming. As we watched, huge puppets paraded around the Seattle Center fountain. They were at least 8 or 9 feet tall, with 3 people manning each one, representing everyone from Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani who has become a feminist icon, to mythological or literary figures.

“Questioning Trump is our moral obligation.”

Finally, late in the afternoon, it began to rain. As the sun went down, we all realized that it was still winter and were terribly glad we had brought sweaters, hats, gloves, raincoats, etc. As a gentle rain fell, our organizers assembled us into bus groups.

I am so glad I went. I know it sounds pompous, but I believe – as one of the millions who marched around the world – that I marched into history. And – on this day in Seattle which broke all kinds of attendance records for this type of event – the police didn’t make a single arrest.

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“Rebecca” in Seattle, WA

January 17, 2017

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REBECCA: A PIONEER WIFE : as told by JILL JOHNSON
JAN 20th, 2017 at Haller Lake Community Center 7:30 – 9:30 PM
Sometimes the most fascinating stories are the true ones. Jill Johnson brings to life the story of the pioneering wife of Isaac Ebey and her life on Whidbey Island. Jill has crafted this story of local interest from Rebecca’s diaries, and historical research . No open mic this month since the evening will be full with telling the story of this remarkable woman.
Refreshments offered. Donations welcome.
For more info: Contact Barry McWilliams at eldrbarry@gmail.com or Anne Brendler acbrendler46@gmail.com

They keep coming….

January 3, 2017

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I think this is my favorite image from 2016. It was taken in July at the 55th performance of my one woman show, “Little, But OH My!”.  This little lady appeared at the performance, my third at Deception Pass State Park here on Whidbey Island. She looks almost exactly like her great-aunt, Berte Olson, – especially when she is wearing Berte’s captain’s hat. Berte, the main character in the show, was the first woman to skipper a ferry boat on Puget Sound and own her own ferry boat company. The first of her three ferry boat runs was right there, at Deception Pass – before the bridge was built. She was inordinately proud of her little ferry boats – each of which carried up to sixteen Model T’s!

It is wonderful to have Berte’s  friends and relatives in the audience. It gives the show such a sense of authenticity. And it gives me a chance to test the characterization with people who really knew her. Thirteen years, 55 performances… and her relatives keep showing up. Amazing….

Telling An Epic – Again

November 5, 2016

 

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Yup – we’re doing it again.

As fifteen storytellers and musicians gathered together after a very successful telling of the entire Irish epic, “Wonder Smith and His Son” in Seattle last March, we made a unanimous decision: we wanted to do it again. The experience of telling a long ancient piece was totally unlike any other kind of storytelling most of us knew. We had no idea whether there would an audience for this  – but people came – and they loved it! So did we.

I watched … as tellers I had known for years reached new levels of power and skill in this performance.  Because we were far flung geographically, we had ZERO chance to rehearse together before the performance. All of us neophytes were extremely worried about this. But the veterans kept reassuring us…’don’t worry’, they said, ‘it’ll be fine’.  And they were right. As we spoke, somehow… the whole piece began to flow together; became a tightly knit unit right before our eyes.  How did this happen? Never mind – it did! And we were hooked.  So, the only question was – what will we do next?

As the months passed, I became aware of other groups that perform an annual epic: in Canada and California. I began reading epics again – for the first time since college. What a rich source they are! I realized that bringing this neglected and forgotten genre of literature alive again is an exciting and worthwhile thing. Then we got the word.

SO – in March of 2017, we will gather again in Seattle to perform “The Kalevala”, a Finnish epic. The performance will be presented at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, the only museum in the US which represents the heritage of all Scandinavian immigrants: Swedish-Americans, Norwegian-Americans, Finns, and Icelandic-Americans. The performance will be presented as part of the Finnish centennial year celebration – with a special Finnish exhibit planned. Kippis!

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