Carol Dennis

March 01, 2023 StoryHelix Season 1 Episode 27
Carol Dennis
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Carol Dennis
Mar 01, 2023 Season 1 Episode 27

In this episode, Carol Dennis, co-founder of Minority Voices Theatre, tells their story about finally finding their people, standing up for folks who don't have a seat at a table, and what it means to start over. 

You can read more about the project, about Wordcrafters in Eugene, about our sponsors and community partners, and send in your own Lane County, Oregon stories at StoryHelix.Wordcrafters.Org.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Carol Dennis, co-founder of Minority Voices Theatre, tells their story about finally finding their people, standing up for folks who don't have a seat at a table, and what it means to start over. 

You can read more about the project, about Wordcrafters in Eugene, about our sponsors and community partners, and send in your own Lane County, Oregon stories at StoryHelix.Wordcrafters.Org.

Thanks for listening!

[00:00:00] Leah Velez: You're listening to Story Helix intertwining stories past, present, and not yet imagined in Lane County, Oregon. What's up, earthlings? I'm Leah Velez and I'll be your host. The story we're about to hear was recorded in a small studio at the Oregon Wine Lab during a beautiful event on September, 2022. Let's open up our ear nuggets, and give it a listen.

[00:00:37] Carol Dennis: So I'm Carol Dennis. And, um, every time I'm asked for pronouns, it breaks my heart because it's a privilege of those who know their pronouns, which I do not. And Miami, New York, LA, Eugene is my background. I moved here in 90. And I moved here with someone. We were living in LA and our relationship was having a lot of trouble, and we couldn't tell whether it was all the grief from AIDS, whether it was the drive-by shootings in Burbank, or whether it was us.

So we got up here, and discovered it was us. And she moved back to LA after about a year, and I've been here now 32 years. It didn't feel like home for about 10 years. I just couldn't find what I would say. My , my family, my tribe, my people. I just didn't feel like it was home, and yet I knew not to leave. For about the first 10 years I'd go back... So I grew up in Miami.

I spent my twenties in New York City and then my thirties in LA and then I moved up here to Eugene. And whenever, in those 10 years that I was living here, I, I went back to New York a few times, and as soon as I stepped out of the taxi and onto Broadway, the streets, the Upper West side of Manhattan. That's where I felt like I was home.

I just, all of a sudden felt "this is where I belong," and yet I knew I had to come back. And now I've been here 32 years ,and I want to take my last breath here. 

Now. I have a wonderful wife. We've been together a little over 16 years. We've known each other for, um, well, let's see. I've been here, we've met in 1993. So we've known each other almost 30 years, but about 16 years ago, we were both single at the same time and realized that we'd been waiting for that moment to be together. And so my dream, we have these matching recliners in our living room where we sit and watch TV in the evening. My dream is that hopefully 30 years from now, cuz I'll be 70 next month. She's a little younger than me, a few years. That 30 years from now they're going to find us in our recliners with the TV on, holding hands, both dead . That's where it'll happen. 

But when I got here, well, in the first 10 years, it was interesting because there was a paradox going on because in the first 10 years that I was here, it didn't feel like home. But I knew I belonged. So there was that. That's one of the most important things for me because as a kid, a queer kid, a gender mixed kid, I don't know that I started belonging anywhere until I was in my forties or fifties and was finally saying, well, fuck it. I'm gonna make my own world It means, golly, it means that my authentic. No, that's too clinical. It means I don't have to wear a mask. I mean, a, a covid mask. Yes, we're wearing covid masks right now, but I mean that artificial pretending to be someone else... that my story counts. And that when you tell your story, and I hear it, and I tell my story ,and you hear it, we find places that we belong together.

So belonging is, I think being able to stop holding my breath in social situations or it's about being with family even when family's not around. I mean, when, when Stanley and I started Minority Voices Theatre, the tagline on Minority Voices Theatre is a theater that creates a sense of belonging. it's about hearing our stories.

That's why I love this project. It's about hearing our stories, knowing that everyone's story has value. If belonging were a photo... do you remember those old Coca-Cola commercials? (Sings) If I could teach the world to sing, (Speaking again) I think it would be a huge group of people just arm and arm. You know? 

There's another moment that I remember that was a real sense of belonging.

I was up in Salem at the state capitol. in Salem. And it was a rally, and a gathering I think for, immigration rights. And there were a whole bunch of us, we posed for a photo. , there's a huge staircase. in the Capitol building, and there were probably, I don't know, maybe 50, 75 people sitting on the stairs waiting for a photo, and somebody down at the bottom had a loaf of bread and they broke off a small piece for themselves and handed it back, and it was this amazing moment of literally breaking bread with everybody that was there for that photo.

It was an amazing, an amazing moment. It's that sharing.

So I grew up in Miami. I was born in Cherry Point, North Carolina. My dad was in the Marines. I was born on the Marine Corp base, but I wasn't more than like one when we moved to Miami cuz he got stationed to Homestead. I grew up in Miami, a big, big city where I never felt like I belonged.

Yeah. But my mother grew up in New York City and I had her voice in my head always. And her culture was in my body. So going to New York felt like going home. But New York is so big and so fast, and I tried to do theater there and I had a pretty good career. I got my union card right away. I was out on tours. I did some off off Broadway stuff when I wasn't acting, I was stage managing or working the front of the house.

You know, I just, I made my living in theater in New York. And then a show took me from New York to LA and I was in Los Angeles for 10 years. And again, it was big stuff. I got to coordinate part of the opening and closing ceremonies at the 84 Olympics. I got to coordinate part of Disneyland's 30th anniversary party.

I mean, I was doing big things, but I can't think back to LA today and think of anybody that if I went down there, I'd go see. And in New York, there's maybe three people. My Aunt Lillian was one of 'em. She lived to 104. [friend and interviewer, Larry Leveroni: Oh wow.] Had her brain the whole time. [Wow.] And it was wonderful to watch. My mom, my mom lived till 90 and also had her brain.

So, but going back to New York, there's like maybe three or four people there. After all those years of living there, it occurred to me, so I was in LA at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and I was in LA, in gay AA LA at the height of the AIDS epidemic and there were memorial services being announced at every AA meeting. People who were, whose past was catching up with them. After 10 years, there was just so much grieving and I knew I needed to leave and like I said, I left with somebody cuz we weren't sure whether it was us or our environment, you know, nature or nurture. I guess. But I came up here and realized, I think my natural rhythm is a smaller city than Miami, New York, LA and that's what this is.

There's the cultural stuff that's here, an hour to the coast, an hour to the mountains. I am not a walker. I do not ride a bike. Um, but I I, I have, I do agree with you. I will, I hopefully don't ever have to get on a plane again cuz they just cram you in like sardines. But I think it's the pace. So I don't, I don't think it was me changing.

I think it was finally, I was planted in the right soil. Sometimes there's a difference between where is home and where do we belong. 

 I ran for and was elected to the board of the lane, ESD the Education Service District. but it's a school board, it's a school district that serves all 16 school districts in Lane County, primarily regarding, um, life skills classes. Special ed. My, almost all eight years, I stood up for the kids that didn't have a voice and oftentimes went home. and fortunately I was going home to my wonderful wife who would just let me have my feelings because I made myself belong in that room. You know, when there was a question about whatever the question might have been about programs for, I try to, I try to remember people first, language, kids who were not, who had, who did not have homes. Or kids who were queer, or kids who were thrown out of their homes because they were queer. We were the district that provided services to all those kids that got thrown away. And I was not a kid that got thrown away. I was a kid who was very, very loved, but I felt thrown away because I had these deep, deep secrets.

"You don't know I'm a boy. I know I'm a boy. How do I tell you? How do I live?" "You don't know. I like girls. I know I like girls. How do I tell you? How do I live with that?" So from the age of 11, I was suicidal and I, I dropped being suicidal at my father's deathbed when I realized that when I thought suicide, I didn't mean die.

I'd never seen die before. I meant Start over. [Larry: Say that one more time?]. I meant start over. [Larry repeats, "Start over."] I didn't mean die. I meant start over. So I promised myself that when my skin got thick enough and my shoulders not broad enough, I would speak up for those kids that are like that. Were like me. And so I've eight years on this school board, I stood up for those kids, because I didn't really feel like I belonged in that room, but I forced myself to have a voice in that room because I wanted kids in those school districts to belong.

 It's nice to meet you, Larry! . Well, it's wonderful. It's wonderful after all these years to get to sit down and talk to each other. 

[00:11:48] Larry Leveroni: Yeah. And sharing is so important.

[00:11:50] Carol Dennis: Yeah. 

[00:11:50] Larry Leveroni: And connections is so important. 

[00:11:52] Carol Dennis: Yeah.

[00:11:53] Larry Leveroni: I just recently read a book called Lost Connections by Johann Hari, and it's all about how we're losing the important connections to each other, to family to job. to nature. 

[00:12:08] Carol Dennis: Mm-hmm. 

[00:12:08] Larry Leveroni: and, and we can get back. 

[00:12:10] Carol Dennis: We can. 

[00:12:10] Larry Leveroni: And this has been an example of that. Thank you very much for, 

[00:12:14] Carol Dennis: and we've known each other for decades. 

[00:12:16] Larry Leveroni: God. Yes. 

[00:12:16] Carol Dennis: And this is the first time we've talked.

[00:12:18] Larry Leveroni: It's really very first time we've really talked. 

[00:12:20] Carol Dennis: Yeah. Yeah. 

[00:12:21] Larry Leveroni: So thank you.

[00:12:30] Leah Velez: Thanks for listening. You can find us wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you've got your own Lane County story to tell, we'd love to hear it at StoryHelix.