Wearing a checkered blouse and green skirt and exuding confidence beyond her years, 14-year-old Alecia Grebner adopted various voices as she recently related the story of "Two Ways to Count to 10."
"Long ago, when all the animals of all sizes, shapes and colors lived together in peace, King Leopard announced he would select his successor" in a contest, she told the audience of spellbound children and their families in the auditorium of Hamilton United Methodist Church.
In the Palm of Her Hands
"I can be king! I can do this thing!" Grebner said in the booming voice of the elephant. Next she became a squeaky-voiced chimpanzee, also coveting the crown.
She had the audience in the palm of her hands. They laughed, clapped, sighed, ooh-ed and ahh-ed.
And so it went through all the tales Grebner spun at the recent Black History Month event at the church at 6330 S. Figueroa St. It was just one more display of her storytelling talents, which are winning national recognition from other practitioners of a folk art, which many say is seeing a resurgence.
At the sixth annual national festival of black storytellers last November in Oakland, Grebner was the only teen-ager making an appearance. She told several stories and served as mistress of ceremonies.
She also received the first Nikki Giovanni Award--named after the famed black poet--for being the best young, professional African-American storyteller in the nation.
Grebner was in fast company at the festival, spinning tales with 26 of the leading black storytellers in America, including: Curtis Hunt, better known as "Cousin Wash" and regarded as "storyteller emeritus" among black folklorists; Oscar Brown Jr., renowned raconteur and songwriter with more than 450 songs to his credit; Paul Keens-Douglas, who has recorded several albums of black storytelling; and Whitman Mayo of "Sanford and Son" television fame.
But for Grebner, who has been a professional storyteller since she was 9, the Oakland competition was just another part of a busy scheduled that began when she first competed with 300 children in a speech contest and won when a 6th-grader at Mirman School.
A Large Repertoire
Alecia, who lives in Los Angeles, has been busy telling stories ever since at churches, school assemblies, local libraries and the California Afro-American Museum in Exposition Park.
At Hamilton United Methodist, she told four stories from her large repertoire. Besides "Two Ways to Count to 10," an old African folk tale, she related: "How Brother Parker Fell From Grace," a story from slavery days; "Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears"; and "The Fisherman and the Genie."
Alecia--a straight-A student at Newbridge School who had come to the church with her grandmother, Chrysalia E. Smith, and her mother, schoolteacher JoAnn Grebner (her father, Robert Grebner, works for TRW)--told her audience her storytelling is part of a legacy.
"The stories I tell have been passed down generation to generation. Some have been told to me by my grandmother, some by my mother and many come from books by authors like Paul Laurence Dunbar," explained Alecia, who is also a poet, a gospel singer and has appeared in a number of plays.
"I enjoy being a storyteller," added Alecia, who plans to attend USC as a drama major. "The audience really gets into them. Telling stories make people feel good. I like that part of it. Doing this means I have to sacrifice a lot of my time memorizing, practicing, researching for new stories. But I love it."
She has won many trophies for her storytelling, including the top prize in a speech contest with 700 students from 16 private schools, she said, adding, "Telling traditional stories in speech contests as I do is always a novelty because none of the other kids do this sort of thing."
Elaine Jacobs, a 35-year-old who has been a professional storyteller most of her life and starred with Grebner at the Hamilton United Methodist event, related the tale of "Missy Count."
The story, dating to slavery days, is about a woman buried alive in a coffin by a wicked plantation owner.
"You could hear Missy Count knocking on the inside of her coffin all over the plantation," Jacobs said, dressed in a colorful Caribbean outfit. "Slaves were singing 'Master, Missy Not Dead Yet,' as they carried her alive to the graveyard."
Another of her stories from slavery days was about two brothers, Generous and Ungenerous.
Jacobs, from Cerritos, has a master's degree in art from the University of Connecticut and a master's in folklore from UCLA.
She grew up in a storytelling tradition on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, where she heard the old, old stories handed down to her from her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother.
A Universal Art
"Storytelling is one of the universal arts, one of the oldest art forms in all cultures," she said. "It is an essential part of black America's culture."
As for stories from the slavery period, she observed: "Blacks are not offended by slavery stories. They point up what life was like for blacks at that time in American history. People of all races and creeds learn from these stories as they do from all stories."
In introducing the two storytellers at the 700-member Hamilton United Methodist Church, its pastor, the Rev. Odis Fentry, 59, noted: "You will hear forgotten stories about people in slavery brought to a land that didn't hold much promise for them. Through faith, they made it through a period of extremely difficult times."
He suggested that audience members pay close attention to the insight and wisdom expressed in the stories.
"I can remember as a little boy sitting on my grandmother's lap in front of the fireplace listening to her tell the old stories," he recalled. "There were storytellers all over the place when I grew up in Little Rock, Ark. Storytelling is almost becoming a lost art. Storytelling was one of the ways we as black people knew who we were and what we were all about."
Only the Beginning?
He said that as settlers moved north and west and to the bigger cities from the rural South, storytelling was a part of their culture many left behind.
"I'm glad this program is being put on by the Talent Guild at our church," he said. "I hope this is the beginning and that we will have many more storytelling programs here in the future."
Jacobs told him and the audience that storytelling is coming back, noting: "We're experiencing a rebirth all over America with storytelling festivals."