By Reza Corinne Clifton
PROVIDENCE, RI—From celebrations lauding the thriving existence of RI’s pre-European, Narragansett peoples, to those recapturing the victory won in the American Revolutionary War, to celebrations recently introduced replicating Caribbean and Latino Carnivales, RI-ers have come to enjoy and take ownership of traditions old and new. Well, January’s arrival brings another—relatively new—cultural tradition that more and more educators, youth, and adults alike have come to recognize and eagerly await.
FUNDA Fest 8: A Celebration of Black Storytelling, running from Monday January 16, 2006 through Sunday January 22, marks the eighth year of a multi-day explosion of culture and heritage organized by the Rhode Island Black Storytellers (RIBS).
The Festival begins with a Monday performance at the Providence Children’s Museum, the first year FUNDA intentionally begins on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s day of observance. Performances and workshops will be held at various sites throughout the state including the Kevin K. Coleman Elementary School in Woonsocket, the Beneficient Congregational Church in Providence, the Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket, and the Providence Public Library on 225 Washington Street.
I spoke with two regular contributors and core RIBS members to find out more about FUNDA Fest—its history and current state. Valerie Tutson, storyteller, instructor and performer is a co-founder of RIBS and Festival Director. She is from New Milford Connecticut, though she’s been based in RI for years; she acquired an undergraduate and graduate degree from Brown University. Her storytelling is based partly on her travels to Africa, Europe and North America, and she may be recognizable as the host and producer of the locally-loved, former Cox programming, “Cultural Tapestry.” Besides organizing FUNDA Fest, Tutson is also preparing for two performances at Providence’s New Years Celebration Bright Night, one telling stories and another singing with fellow Rhode Island Feminist Chorus members.
Self-taught actress, singer, writer and instructor, Raffini, is originally from RI and has performed at places like the Trinity Repertory Theatre and the Providence Black Repertory Theatre. She has also performed outside of RI, in such cities as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Atlanta, Georgia. Currently, she is preparing for her annual, summer “Garden Party”—a fish fry and musical tribute to artists of the early twentieth century’s Black/Harlem Renaissance Period She is also preparing for some upcoming performances: a one-woman show she wrote and will star in, about the under-appreciated yet powerful Black woman, Civil Rights organizer, Fannie Lou Hamer; and another play that she wrote, that will be directed by Stella Reed of Tennessee, featuring a mix of characters from works of prolific Black writer, Langston Hughes.
Despite what are clearly busy schedules, both women took the time to talk to me about FUNDA Fest 8, RIBS, and Black Storytelling in general. What follows are excerpts from the two separate conversations:
More about FUNDA Fest 8
Raffini: RIBS members and FUNDA Fest regulars performing are Melodie Thompson Thomas, Abigail [Ifatola] Jefferson, Len Cabral, Rochel [Garner] Coleman and Valerie. I perform on Friday with the Woonsocket Youth. Then, I’ll try to hurry back this way to catch the spoken word night at Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket. Saturday is at the library and Beneficient Church, and Sunday is at the Martin Luther King Center in Newport.
Valerie: In terms of visitors, we have Queen Nur who is a great storyteller who came to FUNDA Fest 7. Last year, she worked with some youth in Woonsocket [the RIBS Youth Troupe], and they all performed, but her other performance, in Providence, last year was cancelled due to the blizzard. She was featured at the most recent National Black Storyteller’s festival where she did this unbelievable piece about the tragedy and dedicated to the people of New Orleans. She performs with a drummer, and it is pretty high-energy.
Eshu Bumper is another visiting performer, who is from Massachusetts. He has a gentle style of telling African tales that may stem from his background as a jazz vocalist. He also has instrumentation with what he does.
Masankho Banda is a visitor who is from Malawi in Africa, but lives in Oakland [California] currently. I was introduced to him and saw him perform at URI [Kingston] at “World Voices World Visions”, a music and cultural camp held every summer at URI started by the URI Multicultural Center’s Dr. Melvin Wade. Masankho will do a workshop called “Dancing and Singing the Story”.
Teju Ologboni is coming back this year too. Teju lived in Nigeria for years; he is a trained drummer rooted in tradition as a folklorist who feels it is important to make connections. He will do a piece on Friday [at the spoken word event] at Mixed Magic called “What happened to the Rhythm” which traces the history of drumming from ancient Africa through to contemporary hip hop music. It is a totally engaging experience where you’ll learn while entertained, hearing the words and rhythm.
Teju will take up forty minutes of the spoken word night, which will also feature Black Rep poet Christopher Johnson, who is bringing other local poets, Lawrence Nunes and Yunis. In House Freestyle [a Black, improvisational comedy troupe] will close out the night which will start at 9:00.
Rochel and myself will do a Martin Luther King kickoff to the festival. We’ll be doing a show at the Children’s Museum about different people’s experiences in the Civil Rights movement.
On Saturday there will be workshops and stories happening at the library called Forever Free dealing with the Underground Railroad co-featuring Music Works. Masankho’s workshop, “Dancing and Singing the Story”, will be stories and projects—related to freedom—in the morning at the library, then Rochelle and I will have a piece that deals with the Forever Free theme in the library’s auditorium in the afternoon.
FUNDA Fest history and development
Valerie: 1999 was the first year Funda Fest was done. It was in 1998, though, that we—various Black tellers—came together brainstorming it. Around this time, the RI Foundation was supporting a national initiative taking place to support African-American art and artists called “I’ll Make me a World.” The same folks who had done the film “Eyes on the Prize” [a highly acclaimed, moving documentary about generations of Black men and women who fought and continue to fight the Civil Rights battles] had done another film about African-American artists. The initiative also tried to encourage communities to call attention to their own, local Black artists as well as national ones.
So some of us Black storytellers stepped up, and said, “hey, let’s do a RI Black Storytelling Festival.” A bunch of us, like Len Cabral and myself, had been going to the National Black Storytelling Festival for years, and we recognized that these were very different from White Storytelling Festivals. We thought this could be something exciting and positive for the Black Community and enriching for the white community too. Plus, there is diversity to the Black experience that we wanted to get out there.
In terms of this year, we have shows at at least 21 schools across the state, with up to 300 students per performance. People are really starting to know and recognize that this time of year is the time to get Black Storytellers in the schools. They know it is an opportunity to impact lots of children.
Another indicator of the success of FUNDA Fest was the fact that so many people were disappointed last year because some of the festival was snowed out. I mean, we are gaining recognition and people are looking forward to the festival, which is a great thing.
Raffini: This is my fifth Funda. In terms of changes…there are definitely more audience members. People are more excited and more familiar with it. What keeps me coming back are the looks on the faces of people showing their enjoyment and showing the knowledge they’ve received. Lots of people come up to me and say “wow”, that they had learned something. Then here are those people that come up to me and say, hey, I have a calabash in my house too.
What and why is RIBS?
Valerie: Initial conversations about RIBS actually started with [storyteller and wife of Brown University Professor, the late George Houston Bass] Ramona Bass and myself one day at Ramona’s kitchen table in 1998. We had heard about the RI Foundation initiative I discussed before. We knew quite a few fellow storytellers, so it was at that kitchen table that we started talking about forming this group, and it was at the table that we came up with the name RIBS. So we called Lenny and Rochelle Coleman, and Melodie Johnson and others heard about our plans. They were the initial folks with Raffini also coming in pretty early. Plans got off the ground in 1999.
We currently have members who work as storytellers as well as educators and, just people who enjoy storytelling. If you’re able to support the mission of RIBS, then you are able to become a member. We used to have only storytellers doing everything. But now RIBS also has a board of directors that is not predominantly storytellers, which is good.
The board is great, really leading the way for RIBS. They’re leading things like all the unnecessary evils that come with being an organization when, for example, we just want to be telling stories; things like fundraising, advertising, paying artists. They are really helping us to demonstrate storytelling as a high quality arts presentation and RIBS as a viable, high quality arts organization.
Last year, we hosted the National Black Storytelling Festival here in RI. Hosting the festival was a great accomplishment especially since it is still being talked about on the National [storytelling] Level. This got people aware of Black storytelling in RI and beyond that, it made people aware that there are Black people in RI, communities that were hear early, pre-dating Black communities, found, for instance, in the west!
Raffini: RIBS is keeping oral tradition alive and spreading stories from around the world, and not exclusively from Africa. And people are really keeping the tradition alive. I got a card from a friend just recently who I saw over the summer who indicated that she’d told a story I shared with her four more times since then!
Why FUNDA Fest, why Black Storytelling
Raffini: As I said, it is keeping the oral tradition alive. It keeps the African stories and legacies alive in our homes. Plus it is a great way of communicating among families. The biggest problem we have within African-American homes is communication.
Storytelling keeps communication alive and history alive. And remember: not all stories are fictitious; some stores are from within our own families. Everyone has a story to tell within themselves.
Valerie: Especially in a world where everyone else is trying to tell our stories, Black storytelling should be very important to Black People. I recognize that I am a product of the Civil Rights movement; my Dad went to segregated schools taught by Black teachers. He learned Black history, and Black stories, though, no questions asked. I didn’t get a Black teacher till college.
We can’t operate as a community unless we tell our own stories. My Scottish grandmother used to say, “When you know the stories and songs of your people, you will know who you are.”
For more information about RIBS and FUNDA Fest 8, taking place January 16, 2006 through Sunday January 22, visit www.RibsFest.com or call 401-273-4013 extension 2.
Reza Corinne Clifton is a community organizer for RI Children’s Crusade for Higher Education on a High School Reform project. She is also a freelance writer whose articles can also be seen in the Providence American Newspaper, Motif Magazine, and at www.RezaRitesRi.com.