Out of the Swamp, Part 1
Episode 3 - Out of the Swamp, Part 1
Story Tellers: Johnny Masiulewicz, Naga Davi Wasserman, Ebony Payne-English
Musical Guest: Brent Byrd
The third episode of Untold Stories was recorded live on stage at the Florida Theater in downtown Jacksonville on Sunday, February 12, 2022.
The episode begins with Artistic Director Barbara Colaciello, introducing the theme of the evening’s stories, "Out of the Swamp," which explores stories of strength, resilience, and rebirth.
Brent Byrd's music is characterized by his soulful vocals, thoughtful lyrics, and diverse range of musical influences. Brent Byrd performs his song, "Coming Down to Me," a soulful and bluesy track with lyrics that speak to self-discovery and personal growth.
The first storyteller is Johnny Masiulewicz, a Chicago native who recounts his fear of alligators and how it intensified after moving to Florida with his failing marriage. In an attempt to push away his nightmares, he begins to buy and dump white gravel into the water around his dock to create a clear space where no gators could come to sneak up on him. He tells the story of his obsession with collecting and dumping rocks and how it led him to nearly getting caught by the local forest ranger. After many trips, he finally creates the haven he was looking for, but when he goes to tell his wife, he discovers that she has left him.
Then hurricane season came, and the rains and storm surge covered up all his hard work. Johnny realized that he can push away his fears for a while, but they'll always come back.
The next storyteller of the evening, Naga Wasserman, is a woman of many talents — a swing dancer and a black belt in martial arts. Born and raised in an ashram in Florida, she was surrounded by a diverse group of people who were all considered family. Growing up, Naga was taught the importance of kindness and that acts of service were paramount. And as a child, Naga was aware of how she felt and how others made her feel, and she never wanted to make anyone feel left out.
Naga's love for dancing began at the young age of four when she started ballet. She enjoyed performing on stage and continued to dance until she was introduced to swing dancing and Lindy Hop at the age of ten. Her brother and his friends were the reason for her discovery, and they spent many Saturday nights dancing away at the studio and refueling at Denny's.
However, Naga's passion for dancing was cut off when she met Josh, her boyfriend during her senior year of high school. He made it clear that he was not comfortable with her having male friends or going swing dancing because of the physical contact involved. Naga made sacrifices and did what she felt she had to do to make their relationship work. She made as many girlfriends as she could and stopped dancing, which was heartbreaking for her. This went on for a few years until they eventually broke up after Naga graduated from college.
Years later, Naga decided to take back her life and rediscover herself. She started swing dancing again and found a sense of community with other swing dancers who understood her love for the dance. Naga began teaching Lindy Hop lessons at a local club called the Volstead and built a safe haven for herself and her fellow dancers.
Throughout her journey, Naga learned that her comfort and well-being are essential, and she learned to use her voice to set boundaries and stand up for herself. She redefined what kindness means to her, understanding that it is not always comfortable and that it includes being kind to oneself.
The final speaker of the episode is Ebony Payne-English, a multifaceted artist who has overcome immense challenges to become a successful actress, playwright, filmmaker, and educator. Growing up in poverty in Jacksonville, Florida, Ebony struggled with depression, multiple suicide attempts, and sexual assault from a young age. Despite these obstacles, she held onto her dream of becoming one of the greatest entertainers of all time.
After a chance encounter with a woman named Sharita Santa Cruz, who became her brand manager, Ebony learned to swim and left a dead-end relationship to start her own nonprofit. She facilitated weekly workshops for teenagers at the main library teen center for eight years, which grew from 20 to 200 participants.
When Ebony was diagnosed with HIV, one of her high schoolers reminded her that she already had children in the form of the youth she mentored. Ebony eventually met a wonderful man and gave birth to her daughter, Mahogany Rose. Unfortunately, addiction prevented Mahogany's father from being present in their lives, and Ebony struggled with how to respond when her daughter began throwing tantrums and crying out for her father.
One day, after Mahogany Rose asked to go to the beach to return her stuffed animal baby Orca to his family, Ebony and her best friend took Mahogany to the beach to dip her locks in the ocean for the first time. When Mahogany began crying and disoriented after being submerged in the ocean, Ebony's friend reminded her that they had each other's backs. Ebony released her tears into the ocean and when she emerged from the water was surprised to see five dolphins swimming in a crescent moon formation right in front of her. The experience reminded Ebony of her childhood dream of swimming with dolphins and the power of faith, gratitude, and togetherness.