More than a decade ago, Darius Wilmore stood in the former Sylvan Beach Café, an ice cream shop in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon, and was struck by how the energy from the young African American workers reminded him of the rap industry in New York City, where he had worked as an art director for years. After learning more about the socially conscious ice cream shop, which was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, Wilmore wanted to help them relaunch. From the shop, Wilmore helped create a new ice cream company called Taharka Bros. Today, the award-winning company has expanded beyond the store, selling wholesale to restaurants, stores, and vendors in and outside of Baltimore.
Through his work with Taharka Bros., Wilmore met Dr. LaMarr Shields, a teacher and 2016 OSI Community Fellow, who asked Wilmore to work with him on a few projects at local high schools. On one ride to Annapolis, Shields began talking about an idea he had, describing it as an amalgamation of The Vagina Monologues, TED Talks, and Black barbers. The idea was just beginning but Wilmore knew it would be something big.
“I said, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I got it,’’’ Wilmore says, laughing. He told Shields to keep him posted.
A few months later, the idea became “Fades and Fellowship.” The storytelling project invited Black barbers in the Baltimore and D.C. areas to tell stories based on exchanges they hear between Black men at their shops, which are often sanctuary spaces for the Black men in that community. Participants were given 13 topics pertinent to the African American experience to choose from. Wilmore and Shields worked with them on the stories, taught them how to improvise, and built a barber shop set.
Their performances sold out. They toured Maryland, performing in local theaters and colleges. Awards began rolling in. But because the barbers had to work, they could only commit to so many shows.
“We had a captive audience and built a foundation with nowhere else to take it because of the barbers’ schedules,” Wilmore says.
He recalled attending a live performance at Howard Theater by The Moth, a popular storytelling group also known for The Moth Radio Hour on NPR. Of the 900 audience members attending the sold out show, it dawned on Wilmore that he was one of only about 11 Black people in the room. He began asking other Black people in his life if they had heard of The Moth. He found almost no one had, even across all different strata, social classes, and ages. “I thought, maybe there’s an opportunity here to do something around what we’ve already built,” Wilmore says.
Engaging both Black barbers and women who work in Black beauty salons, Wilmore and Shields began their spin-off project, “The Short Kuts Show.” This live storytelling format provided more flexibility than the previous iteration. While attendance at early shows was low, an invitation from the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in 2018 changed that. That show sold out and they were invited to return again and again for a year. The themes of the stories continued to focus on the African American experience and were sometimes pulled from albums or movies.
That year, they were preparing to put on a show focused on immigration called “Coming to America,” the title inspired by the 1988 film of the same name. Because of rising tensions among the cast and crew due to longtime schisms between African immigrants and African Americans, people began to quit. Wilmore realized he needed to get a therapist involved. He recognized the collective pain in the stories and the lack of access many of the storytellers had to mental health services. Wilmore learned more about art and narrative therapy and realized his project could have an impact on the mental well-being of participants and the larger community.
Since then, the project has evolved into a form of narrative therapy, using storytelling as a way of healing from the traumas of systemic racism, family instability, socio-economic marginalization, and more.
“When they go back to [their communities], we want the narrative they share to be one of healing. The tools we give them—we hope that they share them with those around them,” Wilmore says. “Over time, in a very small way, this will have some healing impact on those communities around the city.”
As a longtime fan of OSI and the work of Community Fellows, being part of that circle means a lot to Wilmore. And in the challenging world of social enterprise where change and profit can feel, as Wilmore puts it, like “two magnets repelling each other,” that network can make a big difference.
“You feel like you’re yelling into the wind, you feel alone,” he says. “Having a network of people to work with at a major organization can take the stress off of what you’re doing. It propels you to keep going.”