Interview: Grace Aki Talks About Healing, Storytelling, and Her Solo Play, To Free a Mockingbird
If you ask Grace Aki to describe herself in one word, "storyteller" is her immediate response, without a second of hesitation. (She wears this title so proudly that she put it on a T-shirt in the form of a Waffle House sign.) Though she has widespread experience across the arts as a playwright, podcast host, artist, and actor, what unifies her work is her love for telling stories, particularly the uplifting the stories of others. In the past year, however, Aki has endeavored to share her own story through multiple media: her podcast, an art gallery, and her upcoming play with the SheNYC Theater Festival, To Free a Mockingbird.
As a BroadwayRadio daily news correspondent, Aki has extensive experience interviewing artists and theatermakers. When she first began her own podcast, Tell Me on a Sunday, Aki's vision was to dig deeper into what she had scratched the surface of while interviewing for larger news stories. Inspired to reach beyond the typical rapid-fire questions of "how" and "why" that might be asked on the red carpet or in a brief interview, Aki sought to dig deeper into the stories behind the work she admired, by the people she admired. "Being on one side of a red carpet, I realized that we get such little soundbites from people, and we get like, 'This is the book I'm working on, enjoy!' and we don't get to hear people's origin stories," she says.
In June 2021, Aki released an episode of her Tell Me on a Sunday podcast titled "Her Story," in which she shared the one story she had silently carried the weight of, all while uplifting the stories of others: the story behind the voice in the podcast.
She decided to use pronouns rather than a name to narrate "Her" story, speaking in a third-person point of view, in hopes of allowing the focus to remain on how the story could resonate with listeners, rather than what it represented for her own life experience. "I just decided, I want to take myself out of it. I'm not going to use names. I'm using pronouns because I just want people to hear a story that they might identify with. And if they do, it might make them feel less alone. Because I had not heard a story like that," she says. "I never would have expected to share that part of myself, but I thought: OK, let's do this."
"Her Story" detail the narrator's life surviving domestic abuse, and how she persevered and, eventually, broke free. Aki says the response was overwhelming. "I've gotten hundreds of thousands of messages of people telling me their story … so, any time I share a piece of writing or a story like that, like 'her' story, it's to empower others. I know that there's someone out there that could feel that and hear that and need that."
Flash-forward to this past May, nearly a year later, and to Aki's art gallery: Three Acts Before Thirty opened in Brooklyn. Chronicling three stages of her life through three cohesive exhibits of her own handmade art, the exposed brick gallery walls strung together illustrations she had created during the onset of the pandemic that depicted her solitude, then, illustrations of the various media that kept her company through it (such as Fleabag and Diana, the Musical) and, finally, a collage of handwritten letters and greeting cards from those who helped her find her way out of isolation.
"All of my little ink drawings from throughout the pandemic, [I used as] a kind of visual diary … I actually had a group of girls come into the gallery, and I didn't know them, but they stood at that wall for 20 minutes, pointing to each piece, like: 'Oh, I remember when that happened, Oh, I remember when I stopped shaving my legs,' and all of those things. It was so funny to watch people who didn't know me relate to it. That's kind of what To Free a Mockingbird is like," she says.
To Free a Mockingbird, which opens July 27 at the Connelly Theater, is Aki's one-woman play combining the vulnerability of her storytelling with the wit of stand-up comedy. Similar to her longform podcast episode about "Her Story," as well as her art gallery, To Free a Mockingbird seeks to process and share a raw-but-real story of intergenerational trauma so that it may resonate with others. Following Aki's family "across the sea and through the south with family secrets and lessons on how stories get told," Aki's upcoming play expresses that "this is her story, and maybe yours as well."
Previously awarded "Best Audience Choice" by the Atlanta Fringe Festival in her home state of Georgia, Aki's play has been performed before the very family and community that the story has its roots in. "The funny thing about doing this near a town or in the town you grew up in, is that everyone thinks they know you, but nine out of 10 times, people come up to me after the show and say, 'I didn't even know that about you,' or 'I relate so much to you, and I didn't even know it.'"
As To Free a Mockingbird moves to the New York theater scene, Aki firmly believes that New York audiences can resonate with the play in just as many ways as the southern audience can — simply in different ways. "Southern audiences can nod along to certain parts, New York can nod along to certain parts … I can't expect an Atlanta audience to know what it's like to sit on the subway and bawl your eyes out! I can't wait to bring it to the New York audience and hit the ground running on the future of the project," she says.
Whether by listening to her podcast or perusing her art on Instagram, Aki hopes audiences will gain not only an understanding of her, but of themselves, through her work. As Aki continues to evolve as an artist, the candid stories of trauma and truth she boldly shares will carry on through those who have felt validated and seen by them. For those who attend Aki's To Free a Mockingbird during its run with the SheNYC Theater Festival, she hopes that audiences will walk away with the assertion that their story matters. "I think that sometimes we forget the gravity of our own ability to tell stories. That doesn't mean that every audience member should do a stand-up show, maybe that's not their vessel, but maybe it's a Medium article, or just their own diary … I think that you probably have a lot more to say than what people hear."