DAVID KWIATKOWSKI – STAFF WRITER
Some say their careers come full circle at a point. For Stori Ayers, the associate artistic director of the Chautauqua Theater Company, that is exactly the case.
Ayers is directing CTC’s first theater production this summer, Blood at the Root; she originated the lead role in its debut at Pennsylvania State University back in 2014. At Chautauqua, Blood at the Root will continue its run today at 4 p.m. at the Performance Pavilion on Pratt.
To Ayers, though, coming back to this production is not merely another opportunity — it is a calling. Her mother was a social worker and her father was a police officer; she doesn’t see her occupation as much different than theirs.
“As an artist, I really do feel like I am in a service position,” Ayers said. “My job is to serve this story. And if the story says, ‘You need to breathe life in this character,’ then that’s what I’m supposed to do. If it says, ‘You need to have the bigger vision, and tell the story (a certain way),’ then that’s what I’m supposed to do. It could be the same story and at different times in my life, depending on what it needs, (it changes) how it needs me to serve.”
Her mother, Angela Fields, knew early on that Ayers was different than most kids her age.
“She was a very talkative 5-year-old,” Fields said. “Growing up in a southern background, children didn’t speak unless you were spoken to. Stori was the type who would be very observant and engage adults in a conversation, and by me being a young mom, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I hope she isn’t being disrespectful.’ ”
When Ayers was younger, Fields did not understand the magnitude and capability of her daughter’s gift of performing until Ayers portrayed Captain Hook in a summer camp production of Peter Pan. Fields was shocked at her commitment to the character, almost to the point of embarrassment.
“I got stopped by moms and other attendees at the play and they were asking me if she took any special personal acting training,” Fields said. “At that time I was a single mom, I couldn’t afford anything like that, and I didn’t even know that was something that Stori was even interested in, but I saw something very different on that stage. I literally thought she was doing the most. I really did. But at that moment, that’s when I realized that she had this ‘It’ factor.”
Ayers earned her bachelor’s degree from Mary Baldwin University, but it was when she was pursuing her master’s degree in acting at Penn State University that she got her big break as the lead role of Raylynn in Blood at the Root. Playwright Dominique Morisseau wrote the play for the 2014 graduating class, and wrote Raylynn specifically for Ayers.
After the initial run at Penn State, Ayers and her classmates raised $250,000 by performing at all of Penn State’s branch campuses — funds which numerous organizations from the university (including the Penn State School of Theatre and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost) matched. Subsequently, the show was able to tour internationally. Ayers and her class brought the show to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., New York City, Scotland, South Africa and Australia. In Australia, she and the cast won a Graham F. Smith Peace Foundation Prize for the show’s message and themes.
While the show already meant a great deal to the original cast and crew, the continuous headlines of Black men dying at the hands of police pushed them even further, implementing community outreach in the places they brought the show.
After the first show in South Africa, when the cast and crew looked at their phones, they learned about the shooting of Trayvon Martin. After a show in Scotland, they learned of the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department after illegally selling loose cigarettes.
“Things kept happening that made us feel like we needed to keep doing the work,” Ayers said. “And that’s really what kept the engine going.”
Since the show’s debut, Ayers has been in and directed multiple theater productions ranging from A Raisin in the Sun to past CTC productions of The Christians and Detroit ’67, and even a supporting role in the TBS sitcom “The Last O.G.,” playing Tiffany Haddish’s best friend. She has been coming to Chautauqua since 2017.
“(Chautauqua) is a place where, early in their career, anybody could come and practice their craft,” she said. “It’s a place where you get to find your voice as an artist and as a leader. To be challenged. Be a visionary.”
Ayers got to direct Blood at the Root at the University of Michigan, but she is excited for the opportunity to direct it again, and to try and do things differently.
“If I’m being fair, the first time I directed (Blood at the Root), I think I did a lot of mimicking what we did in our (original) production,” Ayers said. “And this time, I’ve approached it with my own idea of who these characters are, what the story is, and allowing these artists to bring their interpretations to the room.”
Ayers’ mother appreciates that she is not just creating space for herself, but also making room for the talent coming after her.
“I respect that she’s not doing it just for herself, but that she wants to create opportunities for others,” Fields said. “She’s trying to position herself where she can give other people opportunities. Even some of the cast members that are doing Blood at the Root right now might not have had this opportunity if she had not positioned herself, so she’s really working to bring the next generation along. I like that it’s not a very selfish act.”
Ayers’ work with Blood at the Root and the events that inspired it is not done yet. She hopes one day to bring the story of the Jena Siz to Netflix in both a dramatization as well as a docuseries.
“She’s definitely living her purpose,” Fields said. “I’m grateful to be here to see that. To see the beginning and the struggle, and her bringing her contribution to the art. I’m just glad to be one of the people to get to acknowledge that, and to see that it’s a blessing every day to wake up and see her work.”