Photo from City Theatre’s production of Flight, March 2008. Pictured center: Joshua Elijah Reese and DeWanda Wise. Photo credit: John Schisler.
In Flight, Charlayne Woodard’s play (recently produced, brilliantly, at City Theatre), the characters are all slaves living on a plantation near Savannah, Georgia in 1858. They are forbidden to learn to read or write, and one of their fellow slaves has just been sold because she had learned to read and was teaching her son.
Not knowing how to read or write doesn’t stop them from telling stories though. The play centers on the oral tradition, the passing on of tales from one person to another, from one generation to another. The storytellers mingle in music and dance, and in Flight the listeners act out the parts of the stories, adding their own interpretations and experiences along the way.
The oral traditions aren’t confined to slaves or people of African descent. Last year, performance troupe Mabou Mines brought Finn, a work-in-progress, to the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. "Interweaving a Celtic legendary figure, Finn McCool, and elements of Middle Eastern folktales, Finn tells the story of a boy’s journey to avenge his father’s death."
Of course, we’re all familiar with some flavor of oral tradition, whether it’s sitting around at the holidays and listening to old family stories, told for the hundredth time, or meeting up with old friends and rehashing tales of the sordid past.
Is this changing with the existence of the Web, with its wikis and blogs and Facebook photos?
If I post a story on my blog, it’s captured in words. That’s nice if I want it to be captured. But what if I want for others to take it and run with it, add their own twists? People do this with memes, like lists of statistics from their iTunes setups; they sometimes respond to a blog post on their own blogs. But memes are small and frothy; blog posts can have substance but rarely does anyone take a post and reimagine or re-present it in a new light. In fact, I think if someone did, they might be slammed for stealing the originator’s idea.
But think of medieval troubadors going from town to town, singing stories along the way, leaving the stories behind to be sung by others with some parts added and others forgotten. I think the Web is a little too good at preserving things, so we can’t experience the beauty and surprise of mutation.
Or maybe it’s there and I’m not seeing it. What’s the modern equivalent of the oral tradition? Is it just what people used before they could write and record and blog, or it is part of the human experience?
UPDATE: On a related note, over at AndrewAlan.com Andy explores social networking on the web and in real life. Good thoughts.