‘Have I got a story …’
There was a time when people spent a lot more time talking to each other.
Diane Ferlatte picked up their stories, added some that were better known, pulled in some of her own and shared them with audiences around the world.
“You don't plan on it,” she said of her unconventional career. “I never thought about storytelling. Sometimes it just happens. And it happened because I adopted a child who came from a house where they didn't talk to him that much. I tried reading him bedtime stories and he would whine for TV because his foster mother had put him in front of the TV all day with other kids.
“That’s when what I grew up with came back to me.”
Ms Ferlatte spent her early childhood in Louisiana where family and neighbours would swap “stories, lies and tales” on her grandparents’ porch.
Her father was a “raconteur” who would “invariably lead the way with family news and history”.
“I grew up in a time called ‘once upon a time’ because there was no TV,” she said. “There were no computers, no iPhones, iPads. It was a different time. People talked to each other. And when you grow up like that, it kind of affects you.”
She began to change the way she read to her son, using animated voices and exaggerated movement for each character; “making the stories come to life”.
“And then I took him to the library to get more books every week. And my librarian, who I love, she wasn't just a librarian for children she was a storyteller. She would read a story in the library and then she would put the book down and she would tell stories. So he basically got it at the library and he also got that at home.
“And it's a difference when you put the book down – you have eye contact, kids can see your face and they can make their own pictures. And I'm sure all the kids that were listening had different pictures in their head, because they came from different houses, different cultures, different everything.”
She only planned to read for her own children but at church, a request came one Christmas. Ms Ferlatte ended up telling stories to the invited guests, many of whom were children living in shelters.
“And that's when my life changed. A lady came up to me after the programme. She said, ‘Excuse me, you’re kind of good. Can you come to my school? My kids would love for you to come to my school, we’ll even pay you.’”
At the school, she was a hit. The requests started pouring in.
“I was making up stories to get off work to go tell stories,” the former bookkeeper said. “And you can’t keep doing that. But I enjoyed it and the more I did it the more I saw a need for it.
“I saw kids lying on the floor with their thumb in their mouth listening to the stories; playing with their friend’s hair. I saw people who were supposed to be working at the school [listening] with their mouths open and I thought, there’s something to this and I decided to quit my job. I thought it was something that was needed.”
Since then Ms Ferlatte has travelled the world telling her stories. In 2007, her album Wickety Whack – Brer Rabbit is Back, was nominated for a Grammy Award as the Best Spoken Word Album for Children.
In 2011 she performed at the Earl Cameron Theatre at the invitation of the Berkeley Educational Society.
This coming week she will be here again with Have I Got A Story To Tell – six different shows for children and adults as part of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts.
The festival website said: “Diane Ferlatte brings to life on stage stories that hold truths touching upon our common humanity, our history and our culture. Many of her stories and songs have African and African-American roots. She believes that telling and listening to each other’s stories not only enables us to learn about each other, but also to understand each other better.”
She saw the need, especially, after she went to a festival in Tennessee in her early days of storytelling and was one of the only Black people there.
“They said it was a national festival [but] I went and I saw 10,000 people coming to this small little town, just to hear stories. I thought to myself, something’s wrong with this picture. Six huge tents; each had one big stage, one person on the stage telling stories to all these people in the tent. One tent had 1,400 seats; another had 1,000 seats, 800 seats – different tents. And every tent I went to to hear all these stories, I was the only Black person around. They were telling African-American stories on stage, they were telling Asian stories on stage, all these different cultures but nobody from those cultures was on stage.”
It reinforced the need for her to tell her own stories. To those she added interesting ones “that are a good fit in my mouth” that she picked up along her travels.
“Most of my stories I try to focus on what I know. I tell stories that I know that I can connect with. I like telling stories from anywhere I find them if they’re good because they’re stories of human beings. And we’re all from the same tribe. I don’t tell stories when I don’t understand the words or the context of what they’re saying. But the stories that talk about human experiences, how they relate, what you feel about … I tell those kinds of stories.”
Diane Ferlatte will perform Have I Got A Story To Tell at venues across the island April 28 through 30. For show details and times visit bermudafestival.org. Learn more about Diane Ferlatte at www.dianeferlatte.com