From Esu Crossing the Middle Passage to the Jungle Book, storytelling, integrity and watering

IMG_20160419_144343“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
Philip Pullman

I’ve been almost too busy to blog, which is a lovely feeling. Busy hearing stories, busy listening, busy absorbing, busy eating stories, busy being watered by them.

Being watered by stories speaks to me on a very deep level.  I volunteered for the Toronto storytelling festival this year (2016) and was fortunate to be able to participate in part of the 3 day storyteller’s camp (for adults).  In between picking up the lunch order, helping to find a power cord and answering questions, I was just like any other lucky camper. Bob Barton asked me to decide if I was a circle or a square, a waterfall or fireworks, a kite string or a clothes line. Nicole Fougere had me expressing myself with movement. There were times when I was definitely out of my comfort zone, and “That’s a good thing” (I can’t help hearing Martha Stewart’s voice when I write that) because stretching increases your reach.

When Chirine El Ansary led her workshop she spoke to us about her challenge with adopting the word “storyteller” in English (she is trilingual, and also speaks French and Arabic). The struggle was about the word’s limitations. I can’t quite remember all the categories she mentioned but she told us that in Arabic there are 5 words for oral storyteller, based on the type of story the teller tells. For example, there are historical tellers, and poets (sh’er) but the one I aspire to be (and sometimes am) translates to “waterer” the one who gives the listeners the stories they need to hear. What a beautiful image. Especially at this time of year when the top soil is no longer frozen, the crocuses have bloomed, lawns are getting greener and migrant birds are returning. To water. I see a gentle stream trickling toward a tender plant, or a fine trail escaping from a watering can, and I can hear the plant’s gracious sigh. To water. There is a beauty in the imagery for me because it implies growth. No plant can grow without water, especially seedlings, which are extra sensitive to its lack.

This brings me to Esu Crossing the Middle Passage which I saw on Sunday. Written and performed by d’bi young anitafrika with music and vocals by tuku and Amina Alfred. d’bi is a storyteller who waters, in every sense of the word. She can make you laugh, cry, hold your breath and want to start a revolution all at the same time. For her, stories matter, and “the village” (a.k.a. the audience) matters deeply. Fed, raised and watered by many creative and dedicated people (including her mother poet/storyteller Anita Stewart)  d’bi teaches and tells with 8 core  principles known as the SORPLUSI methodology. (Check the links below for more info.) One of these principles is “urgency” which is demonstrated in part by the very real and  horrifying connections she draws between the bondage experienced by millions of Africans during slavery and the overt-criminilization and incarceration of black bodies on this continent today. She considers her shows to be collaborations, not only with the performers, musicians, choreographers and technicians that contribute to the production but with the village/audience itself.  There is no “fourth wall”. Esu Crossing started in the lobby of the Storefront Theatre, and from that moment I was part of it. Live storytelling has a unique way of feeding the senses, one that 3-D animation and D-boxing can’t replicate. Because of the show’s thoughtful curation, using minimal props, there was a moment when I smelled that earthy, goaty smell of the grease on the mask, and a cowrie shell brushed against my skin. Those sensations, coupled with d’bi’s 360 degree embodiment of the character, took me somewhere, in a hurry. Suddenly I was no longer an observer, instead I was on a boat, seasick and beaten, homesick and disoriented, enraged, determined, hopeful and terrified all at once.

Is it fair to compare a children’s movie made by Disney studios to that very visceral experience?  Probably not, but I’m going to do it anyway. Last Friday I saw The Jungle Book. I’m glad I saw it, the visuals were stunning, 3-D is always fun (I didn’t know what a D-box was until later) but it was so frustrating because I couldn’t find the story anywhere. And finally I remembered that’s why I never really connected with the book. When I was explaining this to someone later they said, “But it’s for children”. Which to me is like saying, “They are just seedlings, so they don’t need as much care,” when in fact the opposite is true. It’s even more important that children are fed and watered with stories that have integrity, stories with meaning, stories that can grow inside them and help them grow. And any child who has been fed on that kind of story will spot the difference, immediately. There is a very well know teller in Toronto, Dan Yashinsky, who titled a book he wrote, Suddenly They Heard Footsteps, for that very reason.  His son had been raised on stories with substance and then one night (as Dan tells it) he was tired and trying to get his son to go to sleep, and was making up a random story to get the job done. His son picked up on this change and (to help his dad along) piped in with, “Suddenly they heard footsteps…”  If I remember correctly, his son was only 3-years-old at the time. Children know, and if we are honest with ourselves, we know. So it’s even more important that we choose the stories we expose ourselves and the children in our lives to with integrity. Life is short. Why spend it thirsty?

Notes and links:

I will be posting more about my experience at the Toronto Storytelling Festival soon

Today’s word: curate – I know it in relation to curating a visual arts exhibit or even a social media page (thanks Kim Katrin Milan). When I looked it up at Merriam Webster on-line it says it’s from Middle English, “to cure the soul” via Medieval Latin and the Latin “to care” so in the above use, I think it’s very appropriate to think of it as “to care for the soul”

d’bi young anitafrika on the SORPLUSI methodology:

What is D-boxing?

What is the fourth wall?  I really like this post:




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