At just about 12:30 p.m. last Wednesday, Joseph S. Brown, 78, rose to his feet to tell his story. Spectators called out, "Come on, now." And he began, slow and steady, to talk about his life, beginning with his job at the Smithsonian in the early 1960s.
"I went there as a laborer and a drinker," is how he put it.
He told of his countless bouts with drunkenness; how as a young man, after one night of excessive boozing, he ended up in a morgue, covered by a white sheet. And how in the end, he went from a laborer to a college graduate, working in the museum's anthropology lab.
"In those days, for a black to get a job as a museum aide was phenomenal," Brown told his audience.
As the listeners applauded and slapped the palms of their hands on an African drum, or djembe, teacher Vera Oye Yaa-Anna smiled.
Yaa-Anna is one of Washington's leading storytellers, and has been teaching the art of personal narrative to at-risk Washington-area youth in the tradition of her native Liberia since 1996.
Now, through a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Yaa-Anna has brought her brand of narrative to some of the city's older residents, whom she has found eager to tell their stories.
"My hook is to get everybody involved, and that's how we'll get children to learn," Yaa-Anna, 55, said. "We have to listen to each other. They have to go out there and do it for their communities."
At the Congress Heights Senior Wellness Center, Yaa-Anna has carefully instructed her students over the last six weeks in the fine art of storytelling. Nothing fancy, just speak from the heart, she advises.
Part of the appeal for her students, at least for some, was the throbbing beat of the drums and the Nigerian music, which she described as "Africa's Motown," blaring from a radio inside the exercise area where the class is held. She said music often helps enhance a story.
More importantly, Yaa-Anna hopes that the older generation, one that is cherished in Liberian culture, will emerge as leaders to help guide the youth.
"The elders are the most important people in her country," said student Blanche Hicks, 58. "They make all the decisions. That's more than we can say here in Washington. The kids don't seem to have any respect."
When Yaa-Anna greets her students, or as she calls them, "the elders," she bows down to them, dropping on one knee, as is the custom in Liberia. She has urged her students to introduce this custom to the young people in their families and neighborhoods. Many of the adults have been hesitant.
"At first, they said, 'The children will insult us.' But I told them, 'You've got to try it.' "
As she begins the class, Yaa-Anna tells her students they are leaders -- "pillars; you hold your community together." Storytelling, she instructs them, is the way they can do that.
Earnestine Ervin, a D.C. resident by way of South Carolina, was eager to tell her story. She was a bit late, having hurried over for class after attending a funeral.
"My mother had to take up six kids," Ervin said. "I didn't have any skills, so I got married, and I married an abusive husband, and he was terrible to me."
Ervin went on to tell how she moved herself and her two children to Washington and became a successful accountant. She now drives a Mercedes.
Pat S. Carroll, 65, of Congress Heights, said that since the classes began, she hasn't missed one. She said her large extended family is long overdue for a family reunion and she's considering hiring Yaa-Anna to come and help pull the stories out of everybody.
Storytelling is "a bonding mechanism," Carroll said, "because if [some of my family members] hadn't told me a lot of the stories they told me, I would have been lost."
Angela Diggs, the program director at the center, said Yaa-Anna's class has given many of the center's patrons a much-needed emotional and artistic outlet.
"It's definitely helpful for many of them," Diggs said. "It allows them to be around people like them. A lot of those things are difficult to talk about."
Joseph Brown, who fearlessly told of his struggle with alcohol and eventual road to success, said he's starting to like telling stories. In recounting his battle against the bottle, he recalled being so drunk that hospital officials thought he was dead and put him in the morgue. Only when his arm began to sway did doctors realize he was alive, he told the group.
"I'm getting used to it," Brown said after he was through. "That's just one. I have a lot. We want to talk to the youngsters. A lot of them don't know, they don't know the history of how we were raised."
Vera Jamison, from left, Alberta Lessine and Richard Miller learn to use drums.