Professional storyteller Jordan Wiley-Hill joined Tucson’s Fox Theatre Foundation about a year ago to expand its youth programming known as Kids In the Theatre. Filling the new position of youth arts and culture program associate, he brings an extensive repertoire of performance art, education, and program development.
Local community members may recognize him as the featured storyteller at the local Jewish Community Awards event in May, where he wove captivating tales about Jewish community agencies funded in part by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Others may recognize him as an educator at Tucson Hebrew Academy, where he taught for six years and where mindfulness — focusing awareness in the present moment, acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and sensations — was a foundation in his teachings.
Performing arts is the best way he finds to reach people. “The power of performing arts lifts people,” he says, explaining that stories can get at the heart in as many ways as possible to unblock and rebalance energy. Collaborating and synergizing, rather than reinventing, he aims to utilize performing arts to motivate and impact people to take action and do good in the community.
Wiley-Hill grew up in South Africa in the apartheid years. His family was forced out because of their connections with anti-apartheid actions. They immigrated to Dallas, Texas. A musician as a teen, Wiley-Hill says he was shy with people but loved to perform. Put him on a stage and he blossoms.
He attended Solomon Schechter Academy of Dallas, graduated from high school, and later attended Brandeis University. It wasn’t until his senior year, in a small comparative literature story-telling class, that the world of storytelling opened up to him. He describes it as a “wisdom class” very much akin to the bestselling book, “Tuesdays with Morrie.” The professor taught from the heart and had his students telling and retelling their own stories, he recalls.
Wiley-Hill says he had no idea what to do after graduation but did know he was “done being in the system. I needed to leap somewhere else.” He traveled a while. That’s when he met Hugh Morgan Hill, better known as Brother Blue. The African American educator, iconic storyteller, actor, musician, and street performer living in Boston, often performed in Harvard Square.
“He was a fascinating guy — his stories were about metamorphosis.” What Wiley-Hill learned from Brother Blue was that storytelling could be taken to another level. Returning to Dallas, he told stories at a Jewish day school before traveling for another year and visiting family in South Africa. There he connected with another storyteller and was paid for a gig. “So, when I returned to the U.S., I claimed to be a professional storyteller.” He became involved in the Jewish community and led High Holiday programs for youth, then continued his travels in the United States while storytelling, until he met the woman who would become his wife, Autumn, in Western Massachusetts.
They had been in the same space more than once at Brandeis, but he says it wouldn’t have worked out if they met then. Autumn was a social policy researcher who, after they married and lived in Washington, D.C., completed a doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Arizona. She now has a private practice and trains therapists. “We are both deeply narrative, and both care about developing wisdom and what it takes to grow. What I value most about storytelling is that it captures deep wisdom across cultures.”
Wiley-Hill’s Hebrew name is Yaakov, which in English is Jacob. “My favorite stories are around Jacob in general — the mystical, spiritual, shamanic experience. My namesake wrestled with God, and God gave him the new name of Israel. I’ve wrestled with the traditions” of Judaism, he continues. “I’ve carved out my own path with it through storytelling. I’ve found the mainline to the heart of it.
“Howard Schwartz is one of my favorite collectors of storytelling,” he continues, referring to the folklorist, poet, editor, and award-winning author of “Before You Were Born” and other works. “He unearths Jewish tales and brings them to life. He opened up the world of Jewish storytelling to me, including the Jewish horror stories about werewolves and vampires. How else do you captivate teens with stories? This opened up another world of Jewish storytelling to me that is kept on the down-low among high society.” With his thick dreadlocks pulled back in a bandanna and hanging down his back, Wiley-Hill may himself draw some double-takes among that high society. But he works his magic with young children, teens, and grownups alike, drawing in his audience with his intensity, energy, and authenticity.
Wiley-Hill cites the Fox Theatre’s history with the Tucson community and children. From 1936 until television came about, the Fox hosted a Saturday morning Official Mickey Mouse Club, long past the expiration of the national club franchise. “It was character building,” Wiley-Hill says.
“We’re striving to ensure that the youth programming here at the Fox can have as much of a beneficial impact as possible on our community,” Wiley-Hill says. He wants to recreate that “home” for Tucson children, “so kids come multiple times and get to know the theater; to have a sense of connection and an uplifting experience. We’re looking to find ways to make it as accessible as possible for kids who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity.”
Expanding existing programs and developing new arts and culture experiences and opportunities for families and youth, Wiley-Hill dialogues with teachers, parents, and other professionals serving children to unearth specific arts and culture programming voids within the area’s diverse youth populations.
Besides his commitment to the Fox, Wiley-Hill runs his wife’s private practice, does side projects such as the community awards program, and has his own Mindfulness Education Exchange, while wrangling his own three young children. “It all comes together,” he says.