On Saturday, Keepers of the Culture and the African American Museum of Philadelphia collaborated on “Ladies First: Stories of Community Activists,” a storytelling event at the New Freedom Theatre in North Philadelphia.
Caroliese Frink-Reed snapped her fingers and stomped her feet in a syncopated rhythm as she recounted something Joan Myers Brown, a Philadelphia dance pioneer, heard all of her life.
“One and 2 and 3 and 4, heads up, shoulders down,” said Frink-Reed, who is a storyteller.
The event included stories about the lives of women who have made an impact in the city: Sadie Alexander, Joan Myers Brown and Falaka Fattah.
Keepers of the Culture is an Afrocentric storytelling group in North Philadelphia and is the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Black Storytellers.
Tahira Akua Tahira is a past president of KOC and was the creative director for the storytelling event.
“I’ve been a storyteller for almost 25 years,” Tahira said. “If you can sit and recite facts to a person, they might remember it, but if you tell somebody a story, it will live in their hearts forever. It is easy to be remembered and retold.”
She said the event stems from similar stories that were played on WPEB, West Philadelphia Community Radio, through a grant-funded program in 2015
The project included telling the stories of five West Philadelphia folk heroes each week on the station.
Helen Haynes, the interim director of exhibitions and programs at the AAMP who helped facilitate PhilAesthetic, heard about the radio project and wanted to focus just on the women for this event.
The art and work of storytelling
Tahira said that this program gives the storytellers not only the opportunity to perform, but to teach skills about storytelling. Prior to performing, the three storytellers — Frink-Reed, Karen “Queen Nur” Abdul-Malik and Nashid Ali — each gave their advice and strategies for storytelling.
They discussed the four elements that are crucial to storytelling: research, timeline, having an authentic voice and community involvement.
Frink-Reed started at a library where she found a book about Myers Brown, who has worked to make the dance industry more inclusive for underrepresented communities and is the creator of the Philadelphia Dance Company, Philadanco. But Frink-Reed said her primary sources, which were students of her school and their parents, were most rewarding.
Ali was able to speak to Fattah herself, but also said he spoke to ex-gang members who came to the House of Umoja, which Fattah founded to help combat gang violence in the city.
Queen Nur traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. where she first looked through the files of Juanita Kidd Stout, who was Alexander’s attorney. From there, she discovered many papers written by Sadie Alexander were at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I spent weeks going through boxes [at Penn],” Queen Nur said.
Sadie Alexander was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in economics from Penn, in 1921, and the first to receive a law degree from the school in 1927, subsequently becoming the first African American woman to practice law in the state. She was also active in civil rights law.
The authenticity of voice in storytelling is also crucial. Queen Nur had to change her rhythm because Sadie Alexander was “very mild mannered.”
“She really elongates sentences longer than I do,” Queen Nur said. “So to really be authentic in her words, you have to be authentic in her voice. You have to be authentic as you can from all that you learn in your research.”
Storytellers can also connect their own experiences with the story. In 1968, Ali was 18 years old and living in Philadelphia. He said some of his classmates didn’t graduate with him because they died from violence.
“In 1968, you couldn’t even go outside if you were a young black man in the city of Philadelphia,” Ali said. “In 1968, I would go outside and hear gunshots.”
But Fattah, whom people called “the woman who lived with gangs,” made gang members sign a code of honor, or a peace treaty, to curb the city’s gang violence in the late 60s. She’s been working on this ever since.
Connection to the past
Sandra Norris Haughton, the executive producing director at the New Freedom Theatre, said they’ve seen a lot of change culturally and economically throughout the generations at the theater. This year, the theater is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“It’s really important to tell our story and say you know what we’ve been here, we’re the fabric of the community,” Norris Haughton said.
Along with the theater, PhilAesthetic has hosted events at AAMP, the Philadelphia Clef Club and Philadanco, which all came around the same “genesis” of the Black Arts Movement, Norris Haughton said.
“[PhilAesthetic] really kind of reflects a whole look at culturally what was happening in Philadelphia, but also these institutions … they’ve been operating for more than 40 years, so we wanted to pay tribute to that and discuss the contribution they’ve made to art and artists in the city,” said Hayes, who was formerly the city’s chief cultural officer.
“We want to really, just as these storytellers did today, make sure that story isn’t lost,” Hayes added.
PhilAesthetic runs until Sept. 17 with the closing of AAMP’s exhibit, “40 Years of Collecting African American Art.”