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‘Storytelling is not a spectator sport'
Storyteller brings characters from across the world to life
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Professional storyteller Donna Washington of Durham, N.C., tells a story to an audience Saturday as part of “African Tales Family Day” at Piedmont Arts. Washington has been telling stories for more than 26 years, she said.
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Monday, February 3, 2014

By HARRISON HAMLET - Special to the Bulletin

From Anansi the spider to Br’er Rabbit, Donna Washington brought stories that originated in Africa to life in Martinsville on Saturday.

Washington, of Durham, N.C., travels the world as a professional storyteller.

At Saturday’s “African Tales Family Day” at Piedmont Arts, she wove history and lessons into five stories as she entertained about 60 adults seated in the audience and about 25 children gathered at her bare feet during two storytelling sessions.

Washington said she looks forward to telling stories every day, even after 26 years of traveling the country.

“The coolest thing about this (profession) is I get to introduce people to these characters that have roamed through our civilization,” Washington said. “It’s like reintroducing old friends.”

From the start of her performance, Washington encouraged that friendly interaction with the audience because, as she said, “storytelling is not a spectator sport.”

In her first session of the afternoon, Washington told two stories.

She began with a tale of Crocodile tears she titled “The Story of the Monkey’s Heart.” It featured sound effects, a trio of characters and a lesson about underestimating an opponent.

The second tale was of Anansi the spider, a west African character that Washington said came across the Atlantic with slaves — first to the Caribbean as a woman and then to America as Br’er Rabbit.

Washington explained that Anansi and Br’er Rabbit were the basis of a familiar cartoon character — Bugs Bunny.

The tale “Anansi and the Turtle” included energetic sound effects, with the audience often leading the charge, and taught the Golden Rule.

After a short intermission where children were able to play with West African musical instruments on display in the lobby of Piedmont Arts as well as design their own African-themed necklaces, Washington returned for a second set of stories.

She opened her second session with a tale of Br’er Rabbit thwarting his enemies Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox, which she titled “The Tar Baby,” again featuring a large amount of audience interaction.

Washington then shared a story she titled “The Braman, The Tiger and the Mouse,” which mingled stories from African, Indian and Middle Eastern traditions.

The pair of stories taught lessons of equality and thinking one’s way out of trouble, as opposed to fighting.

Washington closed with the sing-song tale of “Johnny and Susan Thumb,” which had every member of the audience wildly waving their thumbs through the air before applauding the storyteller.

Students at Campbell Court and Drewry Mason elementary schools will get a chance to see some of Washington’s storytelling Monday when she visits their campuses.

Washington, who also is known for writing children’s books and recording her stories on CDs, has visited the area in the past to speak at schools but Saturday was her first visit to Piedmont Arts.

“I think this is a gorgeous, gorgeous space. You guys (in this community) are really lucky,” Washington said of Piedmont Arts.

Kathy Rogers, executive director of Piedmont Arts, said she was thrilled to have such a reknowned storyteller visit the area.

“Part of (Piedmont Arts’) job in the community is to explore our shared culture,” Rogers said. “We’re an art gallery that looks at the cultural aspects of our community and our world, so having Donna here was a great fit and a great way to kick off Black History Month.”

Washington’s visits are part of a rotation that brings speakers to all of the area schools, Rogers said.

“Our goal is always to have something at every school,” she added.

“I think she is so amazing and so animated bringing the story alive. She’s humorous. You hear a lot of laughter from both the adults and the children. I really enjoyed the history she rolls into the stories she tells as well,” Rogers said.

Daniel Willson said that although his family is new to town, they plan to frequent Piedmont Arts thanks to events such as “African Tales Family Day.”

“To be introduced to stories from other cultures, to hear the stories of people both like us and different from us, that is always a lesson everyone, regardless of age, needs to hear,” Willson said.

Willson’s daughters Genessa, 7, Breanna, 5, and Gloria, 3, seemed to enjoy the show.

Gloria said she enjoyed the Anansi story because of the turtle that is featured as a character, while Breanna said she “really liked the tiger and the mouse story,” and Genessa shared her excitement because she had “never seen anything like that before.”

“Donna did an outstanding job of being engaging with the facial expressions and she is so articulate,” Willson said. “She just brings you into the story, and I think that’s what kept the girls fixed today.”.


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