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Group Efforts: stories from the soul kitchen

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Proudly displaying her palm, Kim Crutcher says she has her great-grandmother's hands--the hands that made the best caramel frosting she's ever tasted. The recipe is written down, but Crutcher is the only member of her family who can replicate the taste. "I inherited a recipe with my hands," she says. She tells of her bedridden great-grandmother, paralyzed by a stroke, yelling out instructions to her in the kitchen regarding the specifics of timing and measurements. Crutcher takes on the voice of her great-grandmother and leans her body into the actions she describes.

It's stories like this that Crutcher hopes to use in her next play, "Mother Tongue," in which she plans to investigate the emotional connections people have to food, the memories locked in taste. She envisions a montage of characters connected with spices. Cumin, for instance, reminds her of a guitar player she used to date. Sassafras reminds her of her grandfather, who would treat her to the sweet and spicy tea, made from bark, after she helped him chop wood for the stove. "I think that there's a hidden story in food," Crutcher says. "So much happens on the tongue--all of our living happens here."

To capture a smorgasbord of stories for her play, she's extended an open invitation for others to join her this Sunday for a performance workshop and cookbook-creation session. Plenty of ingredients will go into the pot: besides leading participants through performance techniques such as monologue writing and movement exercises and creating an impromptu orchestra with their favorite kitchen utensils, Crutcher will have them read their recipes aloud and share stories in celebration of family heritage while also considering body image and the healing power of food. "Everyone has food that performs health miracles," Crutcher says.

The seed for the "Mother Tongue" project was planted last year when Crutcher jokingly suggested she should open a restaurant with the eight members of the local artistic collective Black Sphota Cocoon. She and Thompson formed the group two years ago as an outlet for women of color to write, perform, and tell their own stories, partly in reaction to Crutcher's frustration with the limited options available to her as an aspiring playwright and actress in her native Tennessee. "I would look at what's out there for a twentysomething black woman to play and there's a real slim column," she says. "I have a life. I have a story. I have friends who are like me and they have stories." At the University of Memphis, she was told she needed to make some changes in her plays: "I had a college professor say black women didn't talk that well and my characters sounded too nice. I dropped that course."

Thompson's experience was similar. She notes that black actresses are too often cast as prostitutes, maids, or the spiritual salvation for white people. "If you really comb through American theater right now, you don't always find the roles available for the breadth of talent out there," she says.

"Sphota," says the collective's mission statement, is a word from Hindu mythology that means "the phenomenon of the invisible suddenly becoming visible." Crutcher and Thompson say that the collective forms a space where members can address the resourcefulness, happiness, and sadness of women of color without having to compromise.

"I see the theater as a way to heal our society," says Crutcher, who teaches acting to elementary students at Frances Xavier Ward School in the Loop. The collective believes that it is just one way to make visible the invisible in their culture. "Black Sphota Cocoon is to get other people to decide to fight the struggle," Thompson says.

Adds Crutcher, "If everyone did it my way, they'd have to spend three hours talking about spices."

"Mother Tongue: The Black Sphota Cocoon Workshop and Cookbook" takes place Sunday from 2 to 6 at Women in the Director's Chair, 941 W. Lawrence. Admission is $30; call 773-334-5035.

--Jenn Goddu

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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