Cheng (third from right) and fellow storytellers at Volumes Bookcafe Credit: Antwan MChenry Belmer

Update: The event on January 30 at Women & Children First has been canceled due to extreme weather. That performance will be rescheduled soon.

In November 2017, shortly after the start of the #MeToo movement, Ada Cheng took over the storytelling show Pour One Out at Volumes Bookcafe in Wicker Park. Cheng was a tenured professor of sociology at DePaul University for 15 years until January 2016, when she resigned in order to pursue a career in theater and performance with a focus on telling stories related to gender and race. When she started producing Pour One Out, she was exploring how to critically analyze gender roles outside of academia. The theme of the first show she produced was “toxic masculinity.” The room that night was packed, and Cheng was overwhelmed by the support. Participants had a palpable need to share their stories, listen to others, and learn more about how and why the culture got here. Cheng soon realized there was more than enough interest and material to base an entire ongoing series around that theme.

Am I Man Enough? is a live lit show that asks storytellers to critically examine the effects of toxic masculinity through personal narratives. Cheng hosts the shows at different venues across the city to reach as many audiences as possible. The next performance is on January 30 at Women & Children First; on April 25 she’ll be collaborating with Center on Halsted for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. When putting lineups together, Cheng avoids giving performers a specific prompt and instead offers guidelines for how to approach whatever material they have chosen to share. “While storytelling can be entertaining, it doesn’t have to be for entertainment,” Cheng says. “The only thing I ask is that tellers are honest, vulnerable, critical, and reflective. Tell a story that serves you. Tell the story in a way that serves the nature of the story. You don’t need to cater your story to entertain audiences.”

Cheng tries to make it very clear to her audiences what they’re getting into. She describes the series as a critical look at “the culture of toxic masculinity and the construction of masculinity and manhood.” That’s likely the reason, she says, that she hasn’t seen much pushback—if you disagree with the idea that masculinity can be harmful, you’re likely not going to show up to a reading series in a feminist bookstore. What she does worry about is how those who are present might be triggered by some of the stories. Exploring male toxicity inherently brings up stories of sexual assault, rape, physical abuse, and other distressing experiences. “Telling traumatic stories is part of healing,” Cheng says, “but I also know storytelling can injure you again.” She is exploring ways she can provide support for storytellers and audience members as the series continues, like having counselors on hand at events.

Despite the proliferation of spaces exclusively for female-identifying and nonbinary performers in recent years, Cheng doesn’t shy away from inviting men onto the show. An important part of dismantling the dangers of the culture surrounding toxic masculinity is involving everyone in the conversation, and Cheng encourages men to reflect on their own experiences. How did toxic masculinity affect how they were raised? What actions did they take to try to fit a societal mold? How have they been complicit in perpetuating toxic behavior?

Cheng considers not only all genders, but all levels of performance experience for each lineup. “Oftentimes at storytelling shows you get the same people over and over again,” Cheng says. “I want to hear people with good stories to tell even if they aren’t good storytellers, because those are two completely different things. I have tellers who have never told before, and it really doesn’t matter to me.”

It’s important to Cheng to continue the conversation inspired by Am I Man Enough? Just as important is thoughtfully planning each show and giving storytellers plenty of time to prepare. While all of the performances so far have been on the north side, Cheng is now being more diligent about bringing the show to different neighborhoods across the city. One thing is for certain: there’s no shortage of stories to tell.

“I think people, especially in this past year with our collective reckoning of toxic masculinity, we’re at a point where everyone is wrestling with this issue,” Cheng says. “A lot of people want to tell their stories. I have a tough time accommodating everyone. I wish I could capture all of them.”   v