According to the North Carolina Storytelling Guild: “Stories can bring us closer to the truth about ourselves, about life and about living, as well as help define our purpose here on earth. Stories connect us to others, and allow us to experience and share joys, sorrows, and new horizons.”
The first Old North State Storytelling Festival, co-produced by the North Carolina Storytelling Guild and the Town of Cary, was held on Friday, Nov. 1st, and Saturday, Nov. 2nd, at The Cary Theater in Cary, NC. With every session selling out, the festival was so successful that it will probably become an annual event.
Nine storytellers, some from North Carolina (and all with North Carolina connections), came to town to regale us with their craft. There were four sessions: Friday at 7 p.m. (five storytellers); Saturday at 10 a.m. (five storytellers); Saturday at 1:30 p.m. (all nine storytellers, with two 10-minute intermissions); and Saturday at 7:00 p.m. (five storytellers).
Attending two sessions — Friday night and Saturday afternoon — I heard two stories by each of five of the tellers and one by each of the other four. All of the storytellers were charming and upbeat; and they made entertaining use of pauses, gestures, facial expressions, sound effects, and mimed activities to augment the words of their narratives. Some storytellers alternated between narrative and song, one teller accompanied himself on guitar, and another played banjo.
Guild president Alan Hoal acted as emcee on Friday night and graciously arranged for my seating in the “green room” for the sold-out Saturday afternoon show.
Cary resident Linda Gorham opened the festival on Friday night with what she referred to as “a twisted version” of the Goldilocks story in which the “three bears” are a New York City family of humans with the surname “Bear.” Papa is known as “Mr. Goodbar”; Mama is “Lady Godiva”; their daughter is “Almond Joy” (but nicknamed “Baby Ruth”); and the intruder into their home is Kaitlin Kathleen (a.k.a. “Kit Kat”).
Puns and references to candy abound! Saturday afternoon Gorham introduced herself as “a storyteller who is also a Beatles fan” and told a story — which she enhanced by singing lines from a plethora of Beatles songs — that included a character named “Rump L. Stiltskin.” Both of Gorham’s stories included a measure of poetic justice; both were thoroughly entertaining.
Next up on Friday night was South Carolina native Jessica Willis. On Friday, she told “The Story of How Rainbow Crow Brought Fire to Earth,” a touching Leni Lenape (a.k.a. “Delaware Indian”) tale about pre-human history in which animals still talked and The Creator dreamed snow into existence.
On Saturday, Willis shared “a folk story and folk song that sort of segue into each other.” Singing a cappella, she relayed a conversation between Death (personified) and a person for whom he has come. Then she told a story of a man who wanted to live forever.
Friday night’s third storyteller was Donald Davis from “the Southern Appalachian mountain world rich in stories” who related autobiographical anecdotes. His Friday-night tale chronicled his hilarious experiences as a Methodist boy whose family took him to church every Sunday morning. The family sat in the same pew every week (as required by rules set forth in the (fictional) “51st Chapter of Genesis”). He was told that he had two things to do while in church: “be-have.” And he also learned that “we don’t leave church for frivolous reasons.”
On Saturday afternoon, we learned about how it came to pass that Davis “owns” the National Parks, and we heard his humorous narrative of a visit to the Grand Canyon that involved two days of riding a mule.
Friday’s fourth storyteller was Donna Washington, who boasted that “Every story I tell is true, except for the parts that I make up.” On Friday, she began with the statement: “Marriage is a wonderful thing — most of the time.” She then related a short personal narrative from early in her own marriage, and segued into her longer tale — an updated variation of the Arthurian legend of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” On Saturday, she reversed the pattern, telling a short legend and then a longer personal narrative of her experiences as the only person of color in a “homogenous” community in which we learn about her have been “other-ed” and “un-other-ed” on election days.
Friday’s finale was Michael Reno Harrell, a septuagenarian from the Southern Appalachian Mountains who claims to be “bilingual” because “I was conceived in North Carolina and born in Tennessee.” He began his Friday night-performance with a sweet, endearing song that he referred to as “my version of the National Anthem.” I am able to recall a few phrases of the refrain: “Sun comes up from the deep blue sea and sets somewhere over Tennessee” and “right in the middle where I want to be: Carolina!”
Harrell then told a bit of family history that included his granddaddy moving to a cotton mill town and living in what is known as a shotgun house. And he continued with his father and uncle both deciding (after a brief stint) not to work in a cotton mill. He finished with a touchingly nostalgic song: “My Town.” Significant lines I remember: “a lot of me got left behind” and “they let the bottom line decide in my town.”
On Saturday afternoon, we heard an equally captivating story about Harrell’s sharpshooter uncle (who spent all of World War II in Columbia, SC) and his widow who lived into her 90s and was courted by a man who married her and fulfilled her dreams of travelling the world. And he segued into another song: “Old Mountain Women, I Love ‘Em.” Then he told about getting his wish to “get nothing” on his 70th birthday and finished with a song that warns that “getting old is not for the faint of heart” and includes the refrain: “remind me why I came into this room.”
ReVonda Crow, a native of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, opened the festival on Saturday afternoon:. Her story concerned a variety of black cats.
Larry Pearlman told the story of his uncle Tony, who had dreamed of being a stage actor, went west seeking work in movies and TV, and then returned to NYC for “probably the shortest Broadway career ever.”
Jon Sundell told a story about King Solomon (before he gained his legendary wisdom) in which Solomon wanted all birds to donate their beaks for a construction project. Suffice it to say that one of the birds manages to change his mind, leading us to learn that “every living thing can teach us something.” Accompanying himself on banjo, Sundell opened with a song “Little Birdie,” encouraging the audience to join in the chorus.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Brian Sturm told a tale from Indonesia about a stone-cutter who wanted a better life. A wood sprite grants him a series of wishes.
Here’s hoping that the Old North State Storytelling Festival will, indeed, become an annual event in Cary! Meanwhile, let me urge you to click here to check out North Carolina Storytelling Guild’s upcoming events and to peruse their directory of storytellers.
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.