I have always had an interest in storytelling. I loved listening to my aunts and uncles share their life stories. And I enjoy hearing my wife, Sharon, and other local storytellers spread the word on the tales of Brer Rabbit or local history.
On a hot and humid day, our family was touring Washington, D.C. As the sweat poured off of us, I didn’t really care which building we went into. I just needed some place to escape the sun and heat.
As we walked, I spotted a poster on the wall. It featured a picture of an African-American woman who is a storyteller. My wife looked at the flyer and recognized the name, Jackie Torrence.
Torrence is a librarian-turned-storyteller from North Carolina. I had seen her books in the bookstore. This was it – my escape from the heat. And I knew the children would love her. A smile spread across my face as I thought of the air conditioner, comfy seats and some place I could close my eyes for an hour. As we walked into the room, you could feel the sweat leaving our bodies. The seats were so comfortable, I was wishing for some very long stories.
Torrence came out in a motorized chair without any props or papers in her hand. I was just hoping and praying that she would keep the children’s attention. As for me, I relaxed in my seat and hoped they would dim the lights.
As the first story about Brer Rabbit elicited laughter from the audience, I couldn’t keep Torrence’s voice out of my mind and I found myself looking at her different facial expressions. There was something special about how these stories came at you. I was getting mad at myself because I was really paying attention to these stories instead of taking a nap.
The second story was a historical tale and then came a reflection from the Civil Rights Movement. Suddenly she said something that made me sit up. “I will now do a scary story. Can you please lower the lights?”
This was it – when the lights were turned down, I sank back in my chair and closed my eyes. This was the moment I had been waiting for all afternoon. Now if this could just be a long story.
Then I heard her voice again and I opened my eyes and there she was, just as she had been for all of the stories, sitting there with her whole face becoming part of the story. As I looked around, every man, woman and child had eyes on this storyteller. I sat there also listening and looking at this lady tell her story.
She had warned us that it was a scary story, so I expected the “boo!” at the end, but when she said it, I jumped in my seat and felt a chill going down my spine. I quickly looked around, hoping no one saw me jump, but all eyes were still on the stage.
On the way out, the girls were saying how scared they were and my wife stated it even got to her. I just walked out and didn’t say a word.
I didn’t get my nap that day because I was held captive and molded in the palms of a storyteller’s hand with her voice. I would never admit to anyone how a woman sitting in a chair with just her voice and facial expressions made me, a grown man, almost jump out of my seat. That’s when I recognized the power of the story and the storyteller.