It's going to be an uphill battle for storyteller Len Cabral. The kids at the storytellers conference at Howard University have just been through "How the First Morning Began," a riveting East African epic in which a spider, a mouse and a fly climb into the sky to persuade the Chief of the Sky to give the Earth daylight. And, among the prekindergarten-through-second-grade ranks, there is a flood tide of unabashed squirming.
He tells the one about "The Two Little Pigs." Yes, two. This one's a little different. The pigs have grown up, one of them likes breakdancing and "Star Wars," and after the wolf has huffed, puffed and blown their straw house all the way to Maryland and then Arlington, they build one out of brick, and then -- well, put it this way: The pigs get free and they eat the wolf.
With his vivid miming and modern updates, Cabral manages to reduce the squirming significantly, but a small fight breaks out on the outer edge of seated children, and heads start bobbing. It's getting to be lunchtime. You know when the kids are losing their attention spans, Cabral -- a professional storyteller from Rhode Island -- says later. They start making ripping sounds with their Velcro shoe straps.
The third annual Festival of Black Storytelling is under way at Howard's Blackburn Center through tomorrow and features more than 30 raconteurs, mainly from the eastern seaboard but also from places like Canada, Trinidad and Guyana. The audience, from prekindergarten through 12th grade, has been swept in from area schools and day care centers to the festival, which also features storytelling at the University of the District of Columbia and St. Augustine's Church. "This is for everybody," says Linda Goss, a professional storyteller who cofounded the festival with Mary Carter Smith.
"My grandfather was a traditional storyteller. He told tall tales out of his childhood. He kept on telling me about his grandfather, who was a slave and used his wits to run away from slavery and live in the woods . . . These are things you don't learn about in history."
"Yeah, a couple of them were a little rowdy," says Goss, dressed in head scarf and sari-like garment and who has just finished talking with high schoolers. "They thought I looked strange . . . I said, 'You'd better listen now . . . Don't go looking for trouble unless it comes looking for you.' "
High schoolers frequently come in with cynical preconceptions, says Cabral, who works five days a week telling stories to everyone from kids at day-care centers to corporate executives. "But then I tell them 'The Two Little Pigs,' and it'll knock 'em out."
Ramon Bass, another professional storyteller from Rhode Island, swaggers, shrieks and guffaws her way through the characters in her stories. The knee-high man who wanted to be bigger, she tells the young ones, asked a bull for his advice. The bull's advice was: Eat all the corn you can, do a whole lotta runnin' around, and make this noise:
"What was the noise he had to make?" asks Bass.
"Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!" come the enthusiastic answers.
Naomi Clark, who is not telling stories today, sits in the audience, a guitar at her side, watching Bass. Clark, from Guyana, has a wealth of folk tales and songs that she has written herself or retained from her youth, when there was "no radio, no lights, no entertainment. The kids talked together in those days and some of the older folks would be among us telling tales."
She also spent much of her early life traveling in the hinterland of Guyana, a mountainous, jungly country, visiting secluded communities and picking up more songs and stories. With only her husband to help her, she built a community in the jungle that now has roads, schools and medical facilities. At home, she says, she recounts stories and songs for her seven children and "when I have a little problem, I can think of a story and go sit among mango trees where there are no people and the problem will go away."
Bass and Cabral are members of a storytellers collective called the Spellbinders. Becoming a storyteller, says Bass, who was raised on Jamaican tales by her father, is a question of being "the best listener with the best memories."