Tasty Words stages funny and poignant stories of adoption

By Bliss Bowen

Actress and comic Wendy Hammers launched Tasty Words after enduring a triple whammy of divorce, a close friend’s death, and 9/11

Actress and comic Wendy Hammers launched Tasty Words after enduring a triple whammy of divorce, a close friend’s death, and 9/11

Standup comedy experienced a popularity explosion in the 1980s and ’90s, after the likes of George Carlin, Steve Martin and Robin Williams — not to mention “Saturday Night Live” — pushed wide the door in the ’70s for more attitude and commentary in comedy. They were followed by bold voices like Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg, Dennis Leary and Eddie Murphy, among numerous others. At the same time spoken word, both spoken-word poetry and storytelling, was coming into its own as a cathartic pop-culture art form.

All of that formed a cultural backdrop for the emergence of series like Tasty Words, now in its 15th year. The “spoken word salon” is the brainchild of actor, comic and producer Wendy Hammers, who is presenting her latest show at Moss Theatre in Santa Monica this Sunday.

“There are a lot of storytelling shows in town that are more cynical than mine,” she says. “Mine are not cynical, but they’re also not sugarcoated. They’re powerful, they’re true, they’re life-affirming, and we need that right now.”

A South Jersey native whose rapid-fire speech is punctuated by frequent laughter, Hammers launched Tasty Words after enduring the triple whammy of divorce, a close friend’s death, and 9/11.

“I thought, ‘If I do not create a place for my friends and I to get onstage and speak our truth, our heads will explode,’” she recalls. “It was a very simple concept; I never knew it would turn into a thing. It was literally just, ‘Let’s get together.’”

After starting in the now-shuttered Montana Avenue children’s bookstore Every Picture Tells a Story, Hammers presented up to 11 shows a year in a 99-seat theatre. In recent years she’s been presenting four Tasty Words nights annually at the 350-seat Moss Theatre on the campus of the New Roads School. Each show is themed. Past themes have included “I’m Too Sexy for My Shirt” and “I’m Still Here,”a to-hell-and-back survivors’ message Hammers promises to revisit in
the future.

Sunday’s theme is “Our Family Looks Like This,” with a lineup of professional and amateur writers, storytellers, actors and comics that includes Amy Anderson, Christopher Brune-Horan, Betty Goldstein, Annie Korzen, Cathy Ladman, Alec Mapa, Greg Swartz and Ian Wallach. All will be sharing personal tales of adoption, from varying perspectives.

“Two of them have been adopted, and six of them have adopted,” says Hammers, who will host. “One is a grandmother of an adopted child. The rest
are parents. One is a couple in process of adopting who haven’t gotten the baby yet; there’s also a young gay couple that are married and are in the process of adopting.”

Assuming you weren’t raised with knowledge of your birth parents, the sudden discovery that you are not genetically connected to your closest
kin can be a confidence-shattering event. On the face of it, you’re the same person you were five minutes before learning about your adoption; yet five minutes afterward, the world is permanently changed. And if you are a parent striving to adopt — or a grandparent compelled by circumstances to fill a void created by your own child — the hurdles that must be overcome can be gut-wrenching.

All of which confronts Hammers, as curator, with a very specific challenge: ensuring the show has balance.

“I personally am drawn to that which lifts people up,” she explains. “I am drawn to funny. Years ago I read an article in The New York Times by playwright Sam Shepard. He said by the five o’clock news, people are saturated, they’re up to their eyeballs in bad news; we don’t have the capacity to take more in. It doesn’t mean you can’t do work of value that’s impactful and that moves people. But you have to use humor as a tool.

“This is what I’ve told my writing students for years: humor is a perspective; it’s a tool that opens people’s hearts. Once you do that, you can share any message you want. But if people are bombarded with terrible all the time, it’s meaningless; they can’t hear any of it.”

A recent survivor of pancreatic cancer (“I am on the other side of it and I feel like a million bucks — before taxes”), Hammers presented her own story at a show last fall: “Winter, Spring and Donna Summer: My Season With Cancer,” now posted on her YouTube channel. Its poignancy’s liberally spiked with wisecracks.

“I had my last chemo treatment six days before I was onstage,” she recalls. “That story is a moving story and people tell me it helped them, but it can never be as powerful as it was that day because of the immediacy it had. The audience was a part of it, and I loved it.”

Similarly, she says, storytellers she brings to the stage connect with audiences via personal essays. Unlike, say, Appalachian storytellers who draw upon folklore, their stories are taken from real life — including punchlines.

“These stories are all true stories, told by the people who wrote and lived them. We’re not telling made-up stories. I have great respect for that, but this is a different thing. I’m interested in someone’s vulnerability and speaking their own truth.”

Tasty Words presents “Our Family Looks Like This: The Adoption Show” with storytellers Amy Anderson, Christopher Brune-Horan, Betty Goldstein, Annie Korzen, Cathy Ladman, Alec Mapa, Greg Swartz and Ian Wallach, at 7 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 4) in the Moss Theater at New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $25. Call (310) 828-1500 or visit tastywords.com.