Ilene Evans

Bringing Historical Figures To Life

by Ilene Evans

First person historical narrative is a way of telling stories from a person’s life as they might tell them themselves. It is a special style of storytelling. This style of storytelling combines the arts of storytelling, acting, improvisation, characterization, imagination, creative writing, biography, historical research, directing, and then stepping into the role of the historical figure.  It is a wonderful form of re-“membering” our his-story (and her-story) which can enrich both you and your repertoire. By re-“membering” I mean that we can literally put something back together that has been torn asunder. Many families have experienced a kind of loss that remembering through storytelling can help heal. Reconnecting through storytelling can mend our memory and sense of identity. Telling stories through character is a teaching tradition found in many cultures. This is particularly true of African and African American culture, its folk life and traditions. 

Historical stories, especially first person historical narrative, engages the teller in a spiritual sensitivity and a technical skill set. Combining all these skills is a challenge to any storyteller. A storytelling artist must integrate the skills of research, writing, performing and educating, respect, humility, and gratitude. Listening to their original words, working with their writings in diary, articles, poetry photographs, songs and compositions connects you to their artistic spirit and humanity. In reaching back to render historical figures, it is helpful to look for an affinity with that figure. Storytelling goes far beyond fact and dates and numbers. The goal is to express the heart and soul of the character. 

Creating an historically plausible framework is essential to the effectiveness of this style of telling. Having a deep understanding of that ancestor’s life and times adds a sense of authenticity to the presentations. Understanding the era in which the person lived helps the teller to keep the person’s voice alive and bring the conflicts and pressures of the past into clear focus in the present.

This style of storytelling does not attempt to impersonate.  Nor should this style of telling be thought of as a reenactment. I prefer to use the word portrayal. The portrayal is based on the teller’s immersion into the research of their life, getting as close to the person as possible. One does not need to look like the person so much as to bring their stories, ideas, and essence to the listeners.  As much as possible we use the persons own words to shape the stories we share.

First person historical narratives help us understand the people who have shaped our lives and influenced out opinions and opportunities, our choices and options. today. Their victories and their challenges reveal the consequences of choices made. When we look at the turning points, the crossroads of their lives, it gives us a chance to rethink what they were thinking when they did the things they did. As my Grandmother Odessa used to say, we must walk a mile in someone else’s footsteps to understand them.  When we “walk a mile in their moccasins” we learn empathy at a cellular level.  We can see the world from their vantage point. 

The direct impact of first person historical narration is very effective in connecting the past to the present and strengthening the moral fiber of our culture. I found that many of the lessons that teachers were struggling to get across out of a text book leapt to instant clarity and full comprehension with first person historical narrative, in a way that just telling them about the story did not. It is a short term -  high impact teaching tool.

A storyteller using the first person brings the audience into direct contact with those critical moments of decision. It allows the audience to interact directly with their history. It can be used to open dialogue, civil discourse, conversation and discussion to build unity in the community. For example, instead of telling someone about the parade, you become a person at the parade, watching it and feeling it with an immediacy of delight, joy, dread, fear, terror, whimsy, transcendence, victory….

Where can someone find this kind of storytelling? Humanities councils around the country have benefited from promoting this kind of storytelling.  An historical portrayal may be accompanied by contextual seminars and symposiums to help bring dry boring history lessons to life. Museums are using it to enliven the experience of their visitors to give context to artifacts and items no longer commonly used. National Parks service employees are finding that telling stories in first person helps increase the personal connection to the value of the natural environment. Classroom teachers are using this form of storytelling along with creative dramatics to help students understand conflicts and time periods far removed from our daily life.  Welcome to my world! 

Happy Telling, Ilene

Br'er Rabbit's Legacy by Ilene Evans

Let me introduce you to an old friend of mine, Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit is a little piece of leather, but he’s well put together, winning with his wit against the mighty and the cruel.  In these folktales, there are creatures who are larger and stronger who could easily overwhelm and prey on the smaller and weaker ones. Without claw and tooth, hoof and fang a defenseless animal like a rabbit is the favorite meal for wolf, fox, cougar, stoats, weasels, bobcat, coyotes, snakes, crows, red squirrels, hawks, falcons, owls, eagles, raccoons, and badgers. With so many enemies, who can Brer Rabbit rely on to help him in the time of need? Who are his friends? Alliances are essential to survive, but which alliances? 

I learned about the wisdom of Brer Rabbit from my Alabama born mother, Ms. Ida Belle, who adored the trickster and placed him between Major Creek, Slaughter Branch, and Pine Log Creek in rural Alabama. “People are not so different from the wild animals of the forest and fields, swamps and rivers, from mountain top to the hollers. People can be just as power hungry and cruel as the animals. Animals could all live together and help each other, but just like folks, we get to a certain point and then get selfish again.” She was sure to add, “That’s what Christ was aiming for – unity and helping each other.” 

I live in the backwoods of West Virginia at the headwaters of the Potomac River. On a daily basis, I see the hawks, possums, raccoons, beavers, mice, wood rats, and deer who brush up against the human invaders and dare them to stay. I have lived long enough to learn that the laws of the wilderness apply to humankind. Many of us grew up on tales about Brer Rabbit and the other animals, both friend and foe; sometimes switching sides: changing times call for a change in allies. 

The wilderness is a useful metaphor for people facing struggle. It is an apt setting those of us who feel like we live in a place that is still wild and untamed, not quite civilized, where mercy is rare and wickedness and self-interest often prevail. Folktales about Brer Rabbit are often set in the wilderness, a stage upon which important warnings and teachings for young and old can unfold. 

The folktales of Brer Wolf, Brer Lion, Brer Rabbit and Sis Possum helped me identify the people in my life who behaved like the animals of the rough country. There were lessons that I could learn to help me move through the unknown, the overwhelming, the frightening, the mean, and cruel things that I saw around me -  and finish it off with a laugh. You didn’t have to be big and tough to win! Someone who was underestimated could prevail and thrive. I didn’t grow up with the quaint servile Uncle Remus in Joel Chandler Harris versions of Brer Rabbit. I had the hushed quiet, “don’t let anybody hear me telling you this” kind of stories. ““Brer Rabbit was smart; Brer Rabbit was clever! You know what Brer Rabbit would do?” My imagination understood the message. The world was not safe for a little girl but there was something I could do about it. 

These are dangerous times for many of us: women, children, people of color, single, coupled, straight, gay, and otherwise. My traditions use folktales as a way of making sacred spaces and holy ground -  to inspire and remember our courage, our strength and what we have to be proud of. They are about any time the power hungry go running wild; when the strong abuse the weak; when we forget the strength of our unity and our collective creativity.

Neighborhoods have been violated before, children targeted before, houses bombed, people tortured, access prevented.  This is not new. Some people are itching for a fight while others want to hide. I take lessons from age old folktales and proverbs, from other times past, when hate was not disguised and our ability to fight back was even more limited than it is now.  For people of color and immigrants, prejudice, suspicion, discrimination and fear have been woven into the very legal fabric of American social culture. This includes the history of Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, the Dred Scott decision, the Chinese Exclusion Act (I could go on and on). Folktales serve a purpose to help us shake out the issues in societal conflicts. They help us picture the forces at work that damage our humanity and dull our compassion. They help us build new language about our perceptions, predicaments, dangers, and prescriptions. Brer Tales show us how to resist the kind of hate and lies that fuel prejudice, suggesting when to fight and when to run, and give council on how to keep our souls intact.

Brer Rabbit has many ancestors and not all of them are tricksters, not just about racial injustice or slavery times. Brer Rabbits’ forebears appear all over the world.  In India, the moon is known as hare. In South American folktales, there is Uncle Rabbit. In East Africa, Sungura. In England, Peter Rabbit. In Asia, Central America among the Aztecs there is the Moon Rabbit. The Cherokee and Algonquin have their Rabbit tales. In Louisiana there is Compere Lapin (Godfather Rabbit) among the Creole. In all these cultures, Rabbit doesn’t always get it right; sometimes he is selfish and just a little too cocky for his own good. We were to mind his errors as well as his wisdom. Brer Rabbit is an old friend to the poor, the weak, the young and old, who have always had to use their wits to thrive in a hostile world. 

Brer rabbit has a lot of kinfolks. Here are just a few: 

Cherokee: Tsistu (Rabbit) 

South American Folktales:

This book was written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Tomie dePaola. The Tale of the Rabbit and Coyote is from the town of Juchitan, in Oaxaca, Mexico. 

From India:  
The Rabbits and the Elephants 

The Foolish Lion and the Rabbit 

Japanese/ Chinese  - The Rabbit in the Moon