Trading Tales

November 13, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Resplendent in a magenta turban and blouse, and a long, flowing skirt, Fellisco Keeling made an eloquent focal point for her audience, a group of 50 aspiring storytellers

"Don't let your hands be a distraction. Don't let the body be a distraction. Think about what you're wearing," she advised. No "see-through outfits," and no clinking jewelry, said the Baltimore yarn spinner and librarian.

"You have to be comfortable," Ms. Keeling said. "Did you polish your shoes? . . . these are not obvious things. These are things that need to be tended to."

More importantly, perhaps, Ms. Keeling reminded her audience how critical their skills are in preserving a fragile natural resource: the oral history that defines and protects African American identity. "We're all so scattered so much," she said. "We have to be very careful about what to tell children and how to get stories to them."

Storytellers -- and would-be storytellers -- from throughout the United States and the Caribbean have gathered in Baltimore this week for the 10th National Festival of Black Storytelling. This year's theme -- "Still Talkin' that Talk" -- plays upon the rich and enduring oral culture of people of color.

Presented throughout the country since its inauguration in Baltimore, the festival has grown from a handful of participants to some 300 who come to attend workshops, storytelling concerts, trade tall tales, and take their talents to area schools.

As storytellers streamed into town Wednesday, the Radisson Plaza LordBaltimore Hotel was transported into a pan-African market place. Kente cloth, draped, wrapped, and sewn into kufi hats, united the crowd. There were corn rows and dreadlocks, and show-stopping hair wrapped in thread in a style called okoto, worn by Caroliese Frink Reed, a librarian and storyteller from Philadelphia.

There were crowns made of mud cloth, decorative trade beads and cowrie shells, and elegant cameos of Nefertiti, queen of Egypt. Women and men wrapped themselves in colorful batik and ikat fabrics and wore --ikis spun with gold thread. They chose regal hues of purple, and the symbolic sub-Saharan colors of red, green and black. Africa's familiar silhouette -- woven, hammered and beaded -- appeared again and again to form the common ground upon which all storytellers, ever mindful of their ancestry, walked.

Storytellers from California, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, among other points, linked arms, hugged and kissed in joyful reunions.

In African dress, rare beads and bracelets to her elbow, Mary Carter Smith, cofounder of the festival and its sponsoring organization, the Association of Black Storytellers, arrived. She carried an ornate cow tail switch, symbol of the African storyteller.

Now in her 70s, Ms. Smith, the official griot -- or storyteller -- of Maryland, presided over the pre-festival activities like an African queen. No, she said, "I am a servant. I am blessed. Everybody has gifts. I'm aware of mine."

She would just as soon tell a story as talk about herself. To illustrate the instructive powers of stories, Ms. Smith launched into two short tales. In her signature, low-tone, gossipy say, she told the story of an arrogant lion shown up by a mild rabbit and a tale about Death's appointment with an African villager.

Before the festival's official opening yesterday, some 100 festival goers participated in workshops designed to improve their performance, business and promotional abilities.

Although it is an ancient art, storytelling is a young profession, difficult to categorize in terms of tax returns, grant proposals and publicity efforts. To be successful, gifted storytellers may need to boost their artistic skills with survival skills, Baltimore storyteller Jamal Koram said. "You have to be called and then you have to find a way to make it work for you."

In the morning, Anita Prince, a Washington-based marketing specialist, told storytellers how to assemble distinctive press kits and advertising on a tight budget.

Thomas Watson, an accountant and "motivational speaker," explained how to keep efficient and useful records of storytelling expenses and salaries.

And Cheryl Goodman, owner of Arts II Management Association in Baltimore, explained how to apply for grants. The current direction in grant-giving is toward serving young people and "under-served communities," she said. Storytelling is the "kind of art form that really plays well into this kind of trend," she said.

For Charlotte Blake Alston, a Philadelphia storyteller who gravitated to the profession after teaching for 19 years, it was all welcome advice. Ms. Goodman offered "a lot of immediately usable unformation" in the funding discussion, she said. "It lit a bit of a fire under me. I was rejected [once] by the National Endowment for the Arts. Now I have the motivation to reapply."

Tandem story tellers Ami D. and Milli P. from Detroit appreciated learning that "you can be nice and get money."

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