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Valerie Tutson keeps the storyteller's tradition alive
Renowned storyteller visits Plymouth Church
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Valerie Tutson has been telling stories since 1991. She knows so many stories — traditional African stories, Bible stories, black history stories, folktales, songs — that she says actually counting them is an overwhelming task.
But what is a storyteller exactly? Tutson says a lot of people think it means reading books to children, which is not what she does. Tutson’s storytelling has more in common with a performance than a dramatic reading. In fact, she’s not reading from anything. Instead, she uses movement and voice to engage her audience and make the event seem like more of a participatory experience.
Which is basically how the storytelling tradition began in the first place. “I tend to think of storytelling as a dialogue,” says Tutson, who leads a storytellers workshop and performs at Plymouth Church on Saturday, April 5. “Even the stories where there might not be a lot of audience participation or specific conversation back-and-forth, it’s a community dialogue.”
Though Tutson’s repertoire covers everything from Bible stories to history, many of her tales come from African folklore. Tutson first traveled to Africa in 1988, when she spent six weeks in South Africa. “I’ve traveled in Ghana and Senegal and Sierra Leon and Mozambique and Tanzania…”she says. “For about 10 years I made sure I went to Africa every year.”
The time she spent in African informed her approach to storytelling. “In my experience, in African storytelling, it’s really about the community coming together and sharing an experience. In the African tradition, everybody gets involved. It’s sort of an automatic thing. You don’t necessarily have to invite people to sing along, to participate or to throw something out for the storyteller.”
She adds: “In America, the kids always want to know, is that a real story? Is that true? Did that really happen? And in Africa, that’s irrelevant. The question is, what did we learn from this story? What did we learn about ourselves, what did we learn about how we view the world? And that becomes the way of conversation.”
The folklore and ancient stories that show up in some form or another in cultures all around the globe are a little more complicated than the modern Western World gives them credit for. Here, we tend to think they’re for children, and spend a lot of time cleaning them up. But Tutson says many of those stories aren’t expressly for younger listeners. “I certainly have stories that are perfect for children, and then I have other stories that children are going to enjoy, but their parents are going to understand on a completely different level,” Tutson says. She sites a particular character that pops up in a lot of folktales in every country — “Rabbit,” generally a clever trickster with mischievous nature that often gets him into trouble, but a quick mind that helps him outwit his opponent (he pops in our part of the world as Br’re Rabbit. And probably as Bugs Bunny, too). Tutson says children can enjoy the antics of “Rabbit,” but adults see rabbit as the trickster in a cultural or political context.
Among the huge range of material Tutson draws from are several tales that always seem to strike a chord with audiences. One of these is a West African story called “The Cow-Tail Switch,” about a man who is brought back to life by his children after he doesn’t return from a hunting trip. The man makes a beautiful cow-tail switch to give to the child most responsible for finding his bones and bringing him back. “It’s a fun story to tell. There’s singing, there’s a lot of interaction, and if people haven’t heard it before, it’s a strange and surprising story,” Tutson says. “There’s this whole conversation about which child it is, because each child did something to bring him back to life. On one level, it’s a resurrection story, and on another level, it’s about the importance of passing on stories, that as long as we tell stories, people don’t die.”
Bible stories will be the highlight of Tutson’s performance at Plymouth Church the evening of April 5, but she’ll also be leading a storyteller’s workshop earlier that afternoon. Everyone is a storyteller, Tutson says; what she tries to do in her workshop is make people conscious of that, and then show them how to use the kind of tools everyone has — voice, body, imagination — to make a story come alive. “I begin with simple questions to invite people to kind of go into their memories, to create space for the stories to be shared, because in our fast-paced world, we don’t take time to ask a question and then to listen for the answer,” she explains. “Not the 30-second commercial answer, but to allow that story to be told with smells and sounds and feelings that make it so rich, that make it a real memory for somebody.”
Valerie Tutson at Plymouth Congregational Church
Saturday, April 5, Noon-3 pm. Tickets: $15/person; $5 for youth ages 10-18; $25 for two adults registering together. $2/child for infants-age 9 (childcare available. Must pre-register); $5/family of 3 or more children.
REGISTER BY MARCH 28: (260) 423-9424
Saturday, April 5, 7 pm
Open to the public. Free will offering
Plymouth Congregational Church of Fort Wayne
501 W Berry Street (Corner of Berry and Fairfield)