The staccato beats of drums blend with the rhythms of rattle-like instruments called shakarees, echoing through the small amphitheatre. The tattoo signals the end of one performance and the coming of another, as Ivory D. Williams steps onto a wooden stage and grabs the microphone. His soft voice booms from the speakers above in a quick, balanced rhythm, growing stronger and louder with every word.
One day last November, as I well remember, I was strolling down the street in a drunken pride. But my knees would flutter, so I landed in a gutter, and a pig came up and lay down by my side. As I lay in that gutter, thinking thoughts I should not utter, a passerby did softly say, You can tell a man by the company he chooses, and at that the pig got up and walked away.
The audience erupts into laughter.
After the show is done, hordes of people pour out of the theater to congratulate Williams and his fellow storytellers, who wait outside in the halls of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. This is Mo Stories, a storytelling concert for adults in the old African-American tradition, staged by the Detroit Association of Black Storytellers (DABS).
The October show, featuring eight storytellers, was the second installment in the Grown Folks series; the first was in February, in recognition of Black History Month. It was supposed to be annual, says Williams, who directed and participated in both events, but the first one was so successful that they asked us back to do more stories. So it will be every six months.
The oral tradition of storytelling stretches back to the foundations of African culture. In West Africa, a griot part musician, part poet and part storyteller was a central figure. The griots tales about the heroes of the past provided both entertainment and a sense of history to a largely illiterate populace. Much later, during the age of slavery in America, blacks used stories to communicate potentially subversive ideas and to ease the pressures of painful times.
Mo Stories builds on this by blending traditional folktales in which animals act like humans and dead bodies converse with each other with historical anecdotes from 17th century Senegal. Theres also a touch of contemporary stories influenced by Detroit and modern culture, such as a tale by Amy D. Jackson and Milli P. Stennis about a runaway cat named Puff Daddy. Despite the genres dabbling with rhymes and metaphors, the presentational style remains educational rather than poetic. Its basis in historical subject matter further separates this unique art form from the contemporary realm of spoken word and performance poetry.
DABS is one of 11 offshoots of the National Association of Black Storytellers (NABS), based in Baltimore. In 1990, several Detroiters attended NABSs annual storytelling festival, and DABS was conceived. A year later, the Detroit association was officially incorporated, and in 1995 it hosted the national festival on home ground. Without an office or fully committed staff to handle administrative tasks, the 80-some members of DABS resemble a loose coalition more than a centralized organization. Although not on the executive board anymore, Williams, a former vice president, still handles many of the information requests.
Also known as Ivory D. or the D., Williams is relatively new to storytelling. He retired from a long career as a sales manager with AT&T in the 90s, becoming a storyteller and professional public speaker; he works with both major corporations and kids in public schools. Hes the president of Efficacy Detroit, an organization committed to the intellectual development of children.
In addition to his performances, which include regular appearances at the DIA, Williams leads seminars and workshops on different storytelling-related topics. Seamlessly shifting from African folktales to stories about his family, he draws enough laughter to sometimes seem more like a standup comedian than a modern griot. At other times, he acts like a hip-hop emcee, calling for the crowd of mostly elderly African-Americans to repeat after him:
I say, Lets tell some, and you say, Mo stories. Lets tell some ...
Its time for ...
Such call-and-response crowd participation is integral to the process. Storytelling is dialogue, Williams says, its not one-way. We feed off the response just as much as they feed off what they hear. So we instigate that.
Janet Langlois, a folklore professor at Wayne State University, says the immediate impact of oral stories distinguishes them from other literature. The art form forges an intimate connection between storytellers and their listeners, while writers are separated from their audiences by space and time.
The audience influences what they say, leave out or develop, she says. Its much more improvisational. And thats why there are many different versions of lots of oral stories.
Langlois says this is amplified in African-American culture. People will say thats the same as in church services, work songs and certain forms of blues. Theres much more community production of the story.
Williams says, We, as African-Americans, are communal people. Storytelling goes way back in our history.
Some worry that, as a contemporary art form, old-time storytelling might not have as much to offer as hip hop, slam poetry and other modern expressions. But Williams says were so inundated with modern media that storytelling is a refreshing change.
Wherever you go, you see people on the corners, on porches and what are they doing? Theyre telling stories. They dont call themselves professional storytellers, but theyre telling stories.Andreas Supanich is an editorial intern for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]