SHARING STORIES All ages get caught up in the magic spun by the tale tellers


The crowd that had come to hear tales from Africa was a diverse one.

They were parents and grandparents, children and teens. Single adults were there, including three young men who described themselves as artists and poets. They were among the nearly 20 people who wanted to listen, learn and be entertained with stories from Africa.

The occasion was "Sunday in the Gallery," an afternoon of African storytelling, folk tales and fables held at the Artworks gallery on Franklin Street each Sunday during the month of August.

The idea of inviting people to the intimate gallery for an afternoon of African storytelling was the brainchild of Carol McMillion, the owner of Artworks.

"We wanted something that was family-oriented and free in the community, something that would deal with our heritage and culture," Mrs. McMillion says.

"We deal in art here, but also in education," she says.

So she contacted her friend, professional storyteller, actress and writer Nzinga Ama.

Ms. Ama belongs to the Griot Circle, which is the local branch of the National Association of Black Storytellers. She is among five members of the Griot Circle participating in "Sunday in the Gallery."

Ms. Ama, who is scheduled to appear at Artworks Aug. 30, says storytelling is something that was passed down from her parents.

"My father and mother always told stories. We migrated to Baltimore from Tennessee when I was 3. They wanted us to know about our families and life from Tennessee."

She says storytelling is not always noted for what it is -- an important art form.

"This is a way of telling oral history, a way of passing on our tradition. And storytelling is not just for children," says Ms. Ama. "It's for all ages."

These days, it is a challenge for storytellers to keep the tradition alive.

"In this age of media and TV, it's very hard for us," Ms. Ama says. Some storytellers are putting their tales on cassettes and videos another means of attracting people. But there are pluses and minuses to that approach, Ms. Ama says.

"Audiovisual can allow us to reach more people. People might not come out and hear stories -- even when they are free -- although they might buy a tape. But the 'aliveness' of experiencing the story is lost. I'm not really gung-ho on audiovisual. I want adults and children to respect live theater."

With her tales, Ms. Ama transports listeners to Africa, the Caribbean and South America. She hopes her stories "encourage people to celebrate themselves."

Baltimorean Mary Carter Smith began the National Association of Black Storytellers along with Linda Goss of Philadelphia in 1982. She says there are about 45 members in the Baltimore chapter.

Ms. Smith, who is considered Baltimore's griot "mother," has performed throughout the United States, the Caribbean and Africa.

"Storytelling," she says, "has been a way of passing on culture from time immemorial. Especially in Africa, there was the oral tradition. We are keeping that alive."

Storyteller Kalongi Collins, who appeared at Artworks recently, cites the feedback he gets from the listeners as being particularly satisfying.

"It's the response I get from people and the encouragement," he says about his enjoyment of storytelling.

Standing before the crowd dressed in an orange and purple traditional African outfit, the 18-year-old looked like the picture of a young African prince.

And, for nearly an hour, the teen spun animated tales of African chiefs and princesses before the children and adults who had gathered at Artworks. His stories were humorous or uplifting and most often taught a lesson.

He comes by storytelling naturally.

"My mother also is a storyteller," he says. Besides listening to stories at home, Mr. Collins would go with his mother when she spoke at Kwaanza celebrations or at festivals. "I grew up hearing stories," he says.

Mr. Collins, who will be a freshman in September at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County where he is a Meyerhoff scholar, has been entertaining and informing with stories for about three years.

He hasn't decided what profession he will eventually go into, but says he will always enjoy storytelling.

For Lillie Paschall, who took her grandchildren to the gallery, the storytelling hours offer a creative activity.

"I wanted to bring my grandkids because I thought this would be much more interesting than watching television," says Mrs. Paschall, who has been to the gallery on two Sundays. "I think we are going to come back again," she says.

For her 12-year-old granddaughter, Amber Paschall, it did prove to be an interesting way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

"I told her I enjoyed it and wanted to come back," says Amber, who was sprawled on the floor with her cousin, Mitchell, 9, and friend, Candice Young, 12, listening to the stories.

Derrick Adams, 22, was one of three artists who enjoyed hearing Mr. Collins weave his tales. "We're all artists and poets," Mr. Adams says. "We came here to check it out."

For people who cannot get to the gallery this month, there will be another opportunity to hear storytellers. In November, the Association of Black Storytellers is scheduled to hold its 10th annual festival in Baltimore.

African tales

What: "Sunday in the Gallery": African storytelling, folk tales and fables.

Where: Artworks, 508 W. Franklin St.

When: Tomorrow, Aug. 23 and 30.

Hours: 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Call: (410) 728-2728.

Coming up: The Association of Black Storytellers will hold its 10th annual festival in Baltimore Nov. 11-15. For more information, call (410) 664-9204.


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