Emerging from behind thick foliage into a golden spotlight, Linda Goss, "The Traveling Storyteller," tiptoed onto the stage at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater wearing a flowing, colorfully appliqued caftan, her ankles and wrists dripping trinkets and bells.
"Storrreeee! Storrreeee! Storytelling time! Aye, ya, ya, ya, ya!" she belted, with head thrown back, ringing an African bell in one hand. The audience of 300 children sat transfixed as she twisted and contorted face and body into incredible shapes imitating the animals in her tales and filled the air with chirps, moos, squawks and roars.
Goss, who got her start here in the 1960s, was back in Washington to open Black History Month at the Discovery Theater, where she will perform through Sunday.
Goss recalled during an interview that her husband came home one time in the mid-1960s, when they were both Howard University students, and declared that black people in the District needed an ordained "storyteller."
"That's me," she remembered saying. She already had captivated friends with her homespun tales about growing up in Alcoa, Tenn. ("the aluminum town"), having two parents named Willie, and knowing characters like her school principal, whose standard greeting was, "My name is West, and I don't take no mess."
Goss, who weaves her own tales among retold Afro-American and African folk tales for audiences at schools, museums and festivals around the country, gave her first professional storytelling performances at the Institute for Arts and Humanities at Howard. She lived in the District for 10 years before moving to Philadelphia, where she now lives with her writer-teacher husband, Clay Goss, and children Aisha, 13, and Uhuru, 11.
"The city was alive with poetry and jazz then," Goss recalled. "There was so much going on."
She still sees herself as spreading a message, particularly to blacks, who "come out of an oral tradition and believe in passing the word on the grapevine," she said. "Blacks should realize how much of an influence African stories have had on America . . . . Bugs Bunny is nothing but Br'er Rabbit."
In one story, a monkey who likes to stir up argument among the jungle animals pulls a prank on a lion, then laughs so hard he falls from a tree and is gobbled up by his victim.
"That just goes to show you: Don't go looking for trouble unless trouble comes looking for you," she tells the children.
From her "goodie bag" Goss pulls batiked and tie-dyed materials, many of them African prints, and uses them to turn volunteers from the audience into various aspects of nature.
With strips of shocking yellow and red, a little girl becomes the sun. A blue-and-white speckled strip turns another child into water. A third child, whom she greets with a wild howl, becomes the wind. A black velvet shawl, shimmering with rhinestones to represent night, draws a collective "aaahhhhh" from the audience.
"She sounds like a real cow," one little girl whispered to a friend. When Goss roared like a lion and ran up to the audience, the three front rows of pupils--from kindergarten to third grade--fell back screaming.
"She has what we always hope for from a performer: . . . magic . . . that draws an audience in and enchants . . . ," Lynn Brice Rooney, Discovery Theater's program coordinator, said of Goss.
"Linda gives you new ideas, new ways for telling a story," Rooney said. "This is somebody who is a real professional, somebody who has very strong feelings about her art and craft."
During a visit to Africa, Goss discovered she unknowingly had been incorporating into her performance some techniques, such as chanting and wearing bells, that are used by griots, African storytellers whom some tribes rely upon to preserve historical facts.
She gets some stories from books and some from life, including the "truth tales" told her by her Granddaddy Murphy, who used to begin their conversations with, "What's your story, Morning Glory?"
His "truth tales," Goss said, were "a little truth, a little lying." Included in the family tales always were stories of her great-great-grandfather Charlie, "a black folk hero Stagger Lee-type who everyone said was the meanest man in Alcoa."
"Storytelling should give people a sense of history and of how ancient their culture is and of how creative and imaginative their people are," Goss said. The "rap songs" now popular with black teen-agers are contemporary expressions of this same oral tradition, she said.
"Everyone has a history," she said. "Everyone has a story to tell. That's what I learned from my grandfather. That's what I try to tell black people."
Discovery Theater in the Arts & Industries Building of the Smithsonian, 900 Jefferson Dr. SW, through Feb. 13. Shows are at 10 and 11:30 a.m. today through Friday and 1 and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Tonight Goss will appear at a reception at Toast & Strawberries, 2009 R St. NW, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Tomorrow she will conduct a master storytelling class at the Sun Gallery, 2324 18th St. NW, from 1:30 to 4 p.m. The cost is $10.
On Saturday afternoon, she will autograph albums at the Cheshire Cat Children's Book Store, 5512 Connecticut Ave. NW.