By Justin Hayford

David Kodeski is a nervous wreck. A longtime fixture in the Chicago spoken-word performance scene, the 35-year-old Kodeski’s new piece is a week away from its premiere. It’s the first in a planned series of True Life Tales and a radical departure from his work as a Pansy King, poet, and Neo-Futurist–and a welcome one, considering the glut of local monologuists endlessly fascinated with themselves. He will sit motionless on stage, without benefit of props, sound effects, music, or even much vocal inflection, and tell a stranger’s life story entirely in her own words. “For once,” he laughs, “I’m not talking about myself.”

The laughter fails to mask a readily apparent but unspoken fear: this could be the most boring theatrical performance since the invention of the commencement ceremony. His subject, a 93-year-old Chicago woman named Doris, is, by showbiz standards, a complete nobody. Kodeski will not be able to rely upon his considerable talents as a writer, and some of Doris’s meticulously transcribed words literally make no sense. Moreover, he has five hours’ worth of material to fit into a one-hour show.

The whole project nearly died in the planning stages. Tonight, maybe Kodeski wishes it had.

Kodeski’s fascination with biography began at age 12, when he read Studs Terkel’s Working, in which people talk about their jobs for more than 700 pages. “What people have to say about the things that happened to them during the day is far more interesting than anything I can dream up,” he says. “Some of it is very banal, but there is also a beauty in that.”

The immediate impulse behind True Life Tales was Spalding Gray’s Interviewing the Audience, which served as both an inspiration and a caveat for Kodeski. He saw the show, in which Gray interviews people from the audience about their lives, last March when the Neo-Futurists were performing at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. “At first I thought it was kind of funny,” he recalls. “But then it started to bother me how much he made fun of them, how superior he made himself. He was pointing out the absurdity of their existence in Aspen. But the audience goes in expecting people from Aspen to be vacuous. That’s their outside life. There must be something more inside.”

Back in Chicago, Kodeski set out to find that something more. He turned to senior citizens, perhaps unconsciously hoping to assuage a personal sorrow. His grandmother, a Polish immigrant, died before Kodeski got to know much about her. “It was always very frustrating that I could never talk to her the way I wanted to, because of the language barrier,” he explains. “I never got her story.”

Kodeski thought he had a natural subject for his show in Estelle Sugar, a regular customer at the Unabridged Bookstore where he works. “She has this great look,” he gushes, “like someone who was at the top of her game in the late 40s or 50s. And such a great name. I thought, The Estelle Sugar Show–they’ll come in droves.” But when Kodeski approached her in the store one day, she said, “Oh, no, not me,” and walked away without another word.

So Kodeski “fished around” for a while. Friends suggested people they knew. No luck there. He tried to post flyers with “Tell your life story!” emblazoned across them in CHA senior citizens’ homes. “Just getting a flyer in those places, the bureaucracy was impossible,” he groans. After a few weeks of dealing with administrators who couldn’t post a piece of paper without approval from a supervisor–who was due back in the office some time after the next ice age–he was ready to throw in the towel.

With only six weeks to go until his scheduled opening, it occurred to Kodeski to call some retirement communities. “I picked one close to work so I wouldn’t have to walk very far and bingo–the first one I called.”

It helped that the facility’s activities director is Travis Stockley, a well-respected theater director. “I told him what I wanted, and he said, ‘I’ve got just the person for you.'”

Doris is the granddaughter of a sea captain and the widow of a Methodist minister. Once upon a time she wanted to run away with the gypsies who appeared in her turn-of-the-century childhood home of South Portland, Maine, because she found them “so interesting.” Now she lives in a 14-story retirement community she refers to as the “penitentiary.” “The people who live there don’t think it’s funny,” Kodeski says. “But Doris thinks it’s funny.”

When Doris first met Kodeski, she kept her distance, telling him a lot of impersonal family history–who married or gave birth to whom where and when. These sections of the interviews seem a bit like all the begats in the Old Testament. But gradually Kodeski got the stories behind the stories.

Doris’s sea captain grandfather was sailing around the world with his nephew on his crew. Upon reaching Calcutta, the nephew contracted cholera and died. The captain then sailed back to Maine and learned that his late nephew’s wife had just given birth. Shortly thereafter the sea captain’s wife died. So he married his former niece. They had three more children, the youngest of whom was Doris’s mother.

Doris spent most of her adult life as a social worker, although the term wasn’t coined until she’d been one for a few decades. At 19 she was in charge of the young, unmarried wards of the state in South Portland–the wayward women, as it were. Her radical innovation was to create social activities for the girls, where they could, for example, “make fudge and act silly.” During World War I she joined the Girls’ Society of the YWCA and spent one night a week knitting socks for the boys overseas. She knew the socks she made were “just awful,” but they were shipped off anyway. She realized it wasn’t the quality of the socks that mattered but the ideology behind the activity, “part of the apparatus of convincing people” they were doing good deeds. “Nowadays,” she says, “people look into things.”

By the time the next world war broke out, Doris was married and living in Indianapolis, where she supervised the government office that rationed sugar coupons. One day, when the office was full of people waiting to collect their coupons, a man appeared with a shotgun, demanding his allotment. He did not, however, ask for extra coupons. He just didn’t want to wait in line. Doris gave him his coupons and sent him on his way without further incident.

After five weeks of interviewing, Kodeski and Doris have become friends, after a fashion. “Yesterday she actually said she liked me,” Kodeski blushes. “She’s from New England, you know.”

In all likelihood you and I will never meet Doris, who asks that Kodeski keep her last name and the location of her home secret. I asked if I could talk to her by phone, hoping to find out what it was like to be in the hot seat for over a month. “She doesn’t want any more attention,” Kodeski apologized. “She says she’s said enough.” After seeing Kodeski’s performance, however, I feel I know Doris better than my own mother.

On stage Kodeski sits behind a massive, handsome wooden desk lit by a single square of light and with great deliberation reads Doris’s words from a three-ring notebook, stringing together a series of anecdotes that lead us through her life. On opening night he makes exactly one gesture: extending his arms in imitation of an 11-year-old girl protecting her piano from an irate, hammer-wielding father. Behind Kodeski, on either side of the stage, are identical pictures of Doris at age five, hair pulled into pigtails buried under enormous bows, an impossibly severe expression on her face.

Kodeski does nothing to impersonate his subject, even less to attempt to impress his audience. Instead he simply recites her words, words that are unfailingly precise and well chosen–even when slightly incoherent–coming from a time before a few billion likes, you knows, and totallys larded spoken English.

On her family’s migration from Canada to Maine: “A great many Canadian people crossed the border and came to improve their situations, and they did very well indeed.”

On her future husband’s attempt to catch her eye in the Boston University library: “He made it his business to become very interested in several books right behind me.”

On warding off the advances of a would-be suitor, who was driving her across town against her will to buy her dinner: “I would please like to be taken to the place where I am expected for dinner. I don’t care to go with you.”

In Kodeski’s hands Doris’s words are sacred but not sacrosanct, loved but not revered. With a poet’s attention to language as well as image, Kodeski pays his deepest respects to a woman he confesses to have fallen in love with. It isn’t boring for a second.

Nothing in Doris’s past would ever have put her on the front page of a newspaper, let alone center stage. But in an era bedazzled by the hollow spectacles of personality and celebrity, honoring a woman for a life well lived is not only touching but rejuvenating. And if, as the anonymous author of Everyman suggests, good deeds are all we can take with us to the grave, Doris will go well equipped.

When he is finished, Kodeski does not take a bow. Instead he places a video monitor on the desk and quietly exits. Doris appears on the screen, sitting comfortably in a wing chair in her apartment, smiling. She gets all the applause.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.