LIVING HISTORY : In Anaheim, a Storyteller Keeps a Slave Colony's Past Alive

Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition

One voice is molasses, slow and strong; another is sweet and fluid as warm maple syrup. Still another has a staccato beat--popcorn exploding in a pan.

These, says storyteller Diane Ferlatte, are the voices of Hog Hammock, a tightknit community on Sapelo Island, a former slave colony off the Georgia coast. Through her one-woman show, "Sapelo: Time Is Winding Up," Ferlatte lets the voices have their say, sharing tales--ranging from personal recollections of slave life to tender family anecdotes--with strangers thousands of miles from the island home.

On Saturday, Ferlatte will bring her show to Anaheim's Pearson Park as part of the city's Starlight Special Series. The 75-minute show is recommended for ages 10 and up.

Audiences will be introduced to generations of Sapelo Island residents including Katie Brown, a former slave; local basket maker Allen Green, and his "sweet and syrupy" neighbor Miss Maddie. They'll hear the tale of Ibo's Landing, where newly arrived Africans joined hands and drowned themselves when they learned they were to be sold as slaves, and they'll visit a modern town meeting where residents decry the steady erosion of island history by a changing society.

In the show, Ferlatte acts as host and as the characters themselves, changing from one to another through variations in her voice and body language and through simple prop and costume changes. To help define her characters, she mentally assigns each a different object. For example, Katie Brown, slow-speaking but with an underlying potency, is molasses; Green, whose speech, Ferlatte says, "kind of pops all over the place," is popcorn.

Most of the stories were gathered through personal interviews that Ferlatte conducted during a visit to the island in 1989, and a few, including Katie Brown's, came from a book that Ferlatte found at UC Berkeley.

As the title suggests, the focus of "Sapelo: Time Is Winding Up" is on the past.

"It's all about how things are changing for people on the island," Ferlatte explained during a phone conversation from her home in Oakland. "Most of these people are in their 70s and 80s. Their homes are being bought up . . . they don't know how long the community will even be there."

Ferlatte started working on "Sapelo" after she was hired by the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum to create a storytelling program for an exhibit of Sapelo Island sculpture. When attempts to gather tales from residents by phone were unsuccessful, Ferlatte, with the help of a grant writer, secured the money to go on a a three-week fact-finding trip.

Her initial reception there was anything but balmy. "I had been warned that the people there had been ripped off; movies and documentaries had been made (about the island), and the people didn't get nothing from it," she said. When she first boarded the boat to the island, residents--even young children --would not look at her. "I was an outsider. They didn't trust me."

Eventually, though, the ice began to melt. Neighbors introduced her to neighbors and ultimately she was able to talk at length with many of them about their lives and ancestry. The night before she left, she had an experience that she says underscored the value of retaining these oral histories.

"This one man I had talked to kept telling me about his brother, the island storyteller. Finally, he took me to see him.

"This old man was real sickly. He tried and tried to tell me a story. Finally, he told me, 'I'm sorry, honey. I just can't remember. You come too late.' Now he's off the island in a rest home."

Ferlatte, a former bookkeeper who remembers "going from porch to porch to hear the old people tell stories" when she was growing up in New Orleans, has been a full-time professional storyteller for almost five years. She also is the mother of two teen-agers ("Pray for me," she quipped). She has spun tales at the prestigious National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., and appeared in November on the Disney Channel's "Salute to Children," sharing the bill with the like of Raffi, Mr. Rogers and then President-elect Bill Clinton.

Locally, she has performed through the Los Angeles Music Center's educational outreach program and at the Taffy Festival. In San Juan Capistrano last year, she was featured at the "Once Upon a Story" and Capistrano Valley Arts Council festivals.

She estimated that she has as many as 200 stories in her repertoire, many of them focusing on African, Southern and African-American cultures, and all of them designed to "touch the heart and transform (listeners) in some kind of way.

"Storytelling builds a bridge between people. Once they share, something happens."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World