The silent generation speaks
October 1, 2022
Seven seniors turn their life stories into a theatrical work of art.
by Page Leggett | photographs by Jay Thomas
When Deborah Langsam, a Jewish woman raised in Brooklyn and the Bronx, was starting grad school in the early 1970s, she took a bus from New York to Duke University’s Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C. She thought she’d just hail a cab from the bus station — until the bus driver told her there were no cabs in Beaufort.
“That began her journey,” says theater director/producer Steve Umberger, whose Playworks Group production company is creating an entirely new Acting Our Age, a theatrical event that premiered at McGlohon Theater in 2019.
Acting Our Age 2022: Using Our Voices is a new edition of a unique live stage/film event that traces the lives of seven elders — residents of Aldersgate Life Plan Community in Charlotte — from childhood to the present.
After that initial rude awakening, “Deborah made her home in the South,” Umberger says. “Throughout her life story, there are cultural comparisons between the North and the South.”
Langsam’s story is among those to be shared at the Booth Playhouse Nov. 2 and 3. “The impulse to honor elders and their life experiences is what drove this in the beginning,” says Umberger, who in 1976 founded the now-defunct Charlotte Repertory Theater, the region’s first professional theater. “Then, so many people responded to it.”
Ranging in age from 72 to 82, these seven Charlotteans demonstrate how the “silent generation” used their voices to create a revitalized, post-World War II America and pave the way for baby boomers. (Langsam, 72, is the only boomer in the group; the other six are of the silent generation.)
Aldersgate commissioned Umberger and Lyndall Hare, a Ph.D. gerontologist, to create the original Acting Our Age. The new edition is the result of an intensive 10-month exploration. The script was created from the life stories of this group of residents gathered through interviews, writing exercises and group discussions.
Lyndall Hare and Steve Umberger
“Each edition of the Acting Our Age series reflects the life and times of the people in it,” Umberger says. “We can trace the changes the world has seen over the years through their life stories. It gives you a very personal, authentic, close-up view of the events of their history — and ours.”
Acting Our Age 2022 features Langsam, Joal Fischer, Kathy Habel, Dick Metzler, Lou Mitchell, Molly Mitchell and Brenda Schleunes. Schleunes, 83, spent her early years in a small town in Ohio. She lived in an area settled by Mennonites. Her family was extremely religious, “which never quite took for her,” Umberger says. “In college, she was put on academic probation after her first year. She was discovering theater, and that turned out to be her life’s passion.”
After college, she lived in Chicago and Fort Wayne, Ind. One of her jobs was working for the Yellow Pages; she was the only woman in a group of traveling salesmen. She encountered a lot of sexism in those days, which activated her feminism.
“We never know quite what the content is going to be until we know the group,” Umberger says. “And this group turned out to be largely the silent generation, that postwar generation. These people were born in the early to mid-1940s. Life wasn’t always easy, and they grew up with a great work ethic and thriftiness. They just kept their heads down and didn’t complain. They achieved a lot through elbow grease and persistence.
“You’ll hear lots of stories about hard work, about community,” he continues. “Several of [our performers] had very humble beginnings. They compare their childhoods to those of kids today, and there’s a general feeling that today’s children have more automatically given to them.”
One person in the group majored in home economics. “That was her passion,” Umberger says. “She calls herself a ‘dinosaur teacher.’ The home ec major became obsolete, but the need for it is not obsolete.”
Umberger is accustomed to working with professional actors, and he wondered in 2019 how people with little to no acting experience might fare on stage.
“When we did the first one, I put money for actors in the budget,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. But, when you get to be a certain age, you’ve got a story to tell, and you want to tell it.
“This is a long process,” he adds. “It’s complex. And it requires commitment from the elders. We spend many months in preparation. By the time we get to the later stages, they have become an ensemble. And they are ready to perform.”
These seven seniors have a lot to say on what it is like to be part of the silent generation, to be part of the early women’s movement, the joys and pains of aging, and the rewards of hard work. Their stories are funny, poignant, illuminating.
“Lyndall always says: A stranger is someone whose story you haven’t heard yet,” Umberger says. “The people in this show have different upbringings, different political beliefs, different religious beliefs — but when you hear their stories, you cannot be a stranger.” SP
Acting Our Age 2022 will be staged at the Booth Playhouse at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center (130 N. Tryon St.) on Nov. 2 and 3 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door and are available through carolinatix.org.
Featured Photograph: Kathy Habel, Joal Fischer, Lou Mitchell, Dick Metzler, Brenda Schleunes, Deborah Langsam and Molly Mitchell