"One day -- I don't know the day and I don't know the year -- a big storm washed Craney Crow out of the marshland and into the swamp. There were twisted vines and moss hangin' from the trees like long green beards. All the critters started lookin' at him, saying 'Where'd you come from? You sure look funny.' Craney Crow felt real bad. At night time, he saw that the birds in the trees didn't have no heads. He didn't know they just tuck their heads under their wings."
The storyteller, Marvel Abamayomi-Cole, an ample woman in a black dress, a jacket from Sierra Leone, an Ethiopian head-wrap and Somali silver earrings, is spinning a yarn by Joel Chandler Harris. The scene is the National Museum of African Art. There are strange animistic birds hung from the ceiling, twisted wooden statues all around the room and strange and horned animals staring from the walls. But the kids in sneakers, jeans and Redskins sweatshirts seated at Cole's feet might be on a Georgia plantation listening to Uncle Remus himself.
"I wonder why the birds here take their heads off? I don't want to be out of style," continues Cole in the Georgia dialect spoken by Craney Crow. Craney tries unsuccessfully to take his head off and then Br'er Fox offers to come to the rescue.
"I'm the one that takes the birds' heads off," says Cole, acting the familiar Harris villain. "I'll bring your head back to you first thing in the morning."
There is a collective intake of breath and widening of eyes as the young audience wonders whether Craney Crow will end up as Br'er Fox's dinner. But just then, the fox's old nemesis, Br'er Rabbit, comes along. In the ensuing fracas, the birds wake up and Craney sees that their heads have been there all along.
"I could have told you that story in standard English, but I don't think you would have enjoyed it as much," says Cole, who's now playing herself. "We have to tell it the way Joel Chandler Harris wrote it. In Georgia the slaves were in transition as far as learning a new language, English. In Africa, they had spoken Arabic or Swahili and many other beautiful languages."
Gwen Nix, another museum storyteller, spells Cole for a while with the famous story of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and the tar baby and with a story by black writer Chester Himes about a boy named Lemuel who lived "a long time ago before they had TV and Atari."
Then Cole comes back with a story about an even more remote past when "dogs and cats were real good friends." When they go on a journey and come upon a king's palace, the cat has an idea.
"Let's pretend that I'm a stranger and you're a traveler," suggests the quintessentially sly creature.
Though the dog's guest quarters in the palace are only so-so, the cat gets the velvet- cushion treatment, and at the end of the long, rambling tale, Cole asks the audience to guess why.
"Because cats don't run after people," offers one boy, but another comes nearer the mark.
"Because the dog was a traveler and the cat was a stranger," he says.
"That's right," beams Cole. "If a little boy came to your neighborhood, would you feel closer to him if he said he was on his way downtown or if he said he had time to fool around with you? The king thought the dog wouldn't be around long enough to make friends."
Originally from West Virginia, Cole is one of 11 children.
"Since I happen to be right in the middle, I became the story teller," she explains. She first went to Africa with her husband, a World Health Organization employee, in the '50s and has been collecting African tales ever since.
"The stories aren't just entertainment, they're oral history," says Cole. "In many countries there's no written language and history is passed down through stories. Children learn their manners, history and codes of behavoir through these stories. The Uncle Remus stories are originally African stories. Joel Chandler Harris heard them on plantations in Georgia. He was fascinated by the stories so he wrote them down." STORYTIMES AT THE MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART -- This Saturday at 1 and 3:30, the Nubian League Theater will present an original production that uses stories and songs to tell the story of black American leader Frederick Douglass. On February 19 at 12:30, there'll be more Afro-American folktales. Both programs are free at the National Museum of African Art, 318 A Street NE. Or read the stories yourself: "A Treasury of Afro-American Tales" by Harold Courlander (Crown, $6.95) is available at the museum's shop. ON THE RADIO -- Every Sunday during February at 1:20, museum storytellers will spin tales over WHUR-FM (96). AT THE SMITHSONIAN -- This Saturday and Sunday at 1 and 3, storyteller Linda Goss will be at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater, in the Arts and Industries Building. Admission is $2 for children, $2.50 for adults..