Amplifying the Unheard: Storyteller, Performer and Professor Dr. Ada Cheng Named 2023-24 Lund-Gill Chair
Dr. Ada Cheng calls herself an “excavator” of stories. A performer and facilitator of storytelling workshops, Cheng creates spaces to help others tap into their inner well of stories—even those that may be difficult to tell.
She is especially interested in lifting the voices of the LGBTQ+ community and Black, Indigenous and people of color whose experiences and perspectives are frequently untold.
This type of personal storytelling, Cheng says, helps to highlight societal inequities, raise awareness of important issues, and bring about healing for the person telling the story and for the audience absorbing it.
Her motto, printed prominently on the bio of her website, reads, “Make your life the best story you tell.”
“There are so many stories that are important and relevant, that need to be told,” said Cheng, an adjunct professor of sociology and criminology at Dominican University. “What people may not have is a platform.”
This year, Cheng is extending that platform to Dominican students, helping them craft their own narratives through her position as the 2023-24 Lund-Gill Chair. She is teaching an honors course in scriptwriting, encouraging students to use the form to express how concerns facing the modern world manifest in their own lives.
“I want them to think about who they envision themselves to be as artists, as storytellers and playwrights,” Cheng said. “What are their values and mores? And what is important to them?”
In 2016, Cheng, a sociology researcher and professor, left a teaching position at a Chicago university to pursue performance art.
“I was already telling stories while in academia, except, as a tenured professor, it was taboo. It was deemed not objective enough. There was this idea that you shouldn’t reveal your personal thoughts in the classroom,” Cheng recalled. “But the thing is, I’m a trained sociologist and personal experiences are also legitimate sources of knowledge. I always believed that. When I left my university to become an artist, I was feeling too constrained, too confined. I wanted to find a different way to express myself, a different way to connect with an audience.”
So, Cheng created workshops and storytelling shows, and launched solo performances to share her own—often very personal and very vulnerable—experiences and truths.
In one 2016 live storytelling session that was both eloquent and raw, she shared how, during an evening walk, she and her partner became the targets of a passerby’s bigotry and hate.
“I can’t carry the hatred I experienced in my heart for the rest of my life, but you know damn well I’m going to use every opportunity to tell the story,” Cheng told the audience.
She also speaks to colleges, universities and organizations on topics of social justice, sexual assault, violence, and gender, among other issues, and has written articles, plays, and a memoir of her transition from professor to performer.
This September, “Pour One Out,” Cheng’s monthly live storytelling series held at Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago, was a featured event during Cook County’s 5th Annual Racial Equity Week.
Held on the second Wednesday of each month, the series is another platform to shine a light on the life stories of the unheard, Cheng said.
“Regardless of what other people think, regardless of external validation, all of us should get to the point where we believe we deserve to be heard, we deserve to stand on a soapbox and tell our stories,” she said.