By Ashley Naftule
Hosting a show can be a tough gig.
It’s one that comes with many responsibilities: you have to be both an icebreaker and warm-up act; be a memorable enough entertainer to carry a show from open to close without overshadowing the talent you’re bringing up on stage, and you have to set audience expectations. You’re the face of the show, the MC, their tour guide through this strange new country — it’s on you to let them know what to expect.
For Angelica Lindsey-Ali, host of The Moth’s monthly StorySLAM series at Crescent Ballroom, the part about her job that she enjoys most is confounding her audience’s expectations.
“I look forward to defying people’s expectations,” Lindsey-Ali says. “I present in a way that might be a little bit off-putting to people: I’m 6 feet tall, I’m plus-sized, I’m African-American, I’m Muslim, I wear a hijab. I think people expect me to come off one way and I love it when I see their faces turn when I tell a joke or say something they don’t expect me to say. That makes it a lot more exciting for me because I can see people’s preconceived notions vanishing really quickly.”
In addition to serving as an unspoken warning that people shouldn’t judge The Moth’s performers on a surface level, Lindsey-Ali says throwing people off with her presentation comes with an added benefit: “It also helps break the ice.”
Not that there’s much ice to be found at StorySLAM shows. Like so many of the storytelling events that have cropped up across the Valley over the last decade, The Moth (one of the many storytelling events that the esteemed non-profit NYC group of the same name organizes across the country) offers up a warm and inviting atmosphere where people can throw their names in a hat to compete in a friendly storytelling competition. The shows attract participants from all walks of life; unlike any other art form, storytelling doesn’t require any extensive training, materials, or funding to make it come to life.
“Storytelling is an equal opportunity art form,” Lindsey-Ali says. “Every person has a good story in them. Maybe they haven’t perfected the way to tell it or maybe they’re a bit shy or nervous to share it. Or maybe they don’t realize that they have a good story until they see someone else do it and then they’re like, ‘wait, hey, I can do that if that’s all it takes.’”
Lindsey-Ali speaks from experience; the veteran storyteller and host didn’t start performing in public as a storyteller until 2017.
“It’s been a big part of my family’s culture — and it’s a part of African-American culture,” Lindsey-Ali says. “It was something that we would do during family holidays. I didn’t consider it to be an art form until I saw that there was a local storytelling scene in Phoenix.”
The Moth host’s first show was at The Coronado’s Vinyl Voices, a monthly storytelling showcase where each teller picks a record and then tells a story related to that specific album or song.
“My song was “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane,” Lindsey-Ali says about her Vinyl Voices debut. “I told a story about my love for Coltrane and how I had to reconcile my love of music with my religious beliefs and how I finally found a spiritual teacher that helped me reconcile the two.”
That December 2017 performance propelled Lindsey-Ali onwards into the Valley’s diverse storytelling scene. She became a familiar face at shows like Bar Flies, Storyline, and The Whole Story. After performing at some of the Moth’s shows and hosting a few of them, she became the StorySLAM’s dedicated host in August 2018.
“They said, ‘ok, we like you, we’re definitely going to keep you,’” Lindsey-Ali says with a chuckle.
Outside of her duties as The StorySLAM’s host, Lindsey-Ali is devoted to her work as the Program Director of Ebony House, a local non-profit organization that focuses on HIV prevention services, HIV testing, and medical case management for people who are living with HIV. Lindsey-Ali says that her work with the community has informed and shaped her work as a storyteller.
“It’s one of the spaces where I’m able to not only tell stories but also consume stories because a lot of the people we work with come to us with these amazing backstories,” she says. “Some of them are tragic, some of them are funny, but all of them are hopeful. So my work in public health definitely has given me space to explore storytelling, and to see the power of storytelling as a therapeutic tool for people who don’t often have the space of the volition to tell their stories to others.”
Lindsey-Ali is currently gearing up for the show’s big milestone: The first-ever inaugural Arizona GrandSLAM. The Moth GrandSLAM is set for this Friday at The Pressroom in downtown Phoenix and will feature ten previous StorySLAM winners competing for the grand prize. More than just an event, it’s an acknowledgment of all the hard work that Lindsey-Ali and the Moth producers have put in to growing the storytelling event and cultivating a loyal audience who keeps coming back month after month to share their truths with each other.
“When you get up on that stage, there’s this instant community that forms— even though there might be 200 people in the audience, everyone sort of bonds and gels together,” Lindsey-Ali says.
“It’s this unique transformative experience where people are participating in art, they’re creating art and supporting art at the same time. I think that’s what makes The Moth unique — it’s an opportunity for people to create communities in these spaces. The competitive atmosphere just adds to the fun of it.”
The Moth GrandSLAM happens this Friday, December 6, at The Pressroom in downtown Phoenix. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 and available via Eventbrite.