African Storyteller draws crowd into Arcata Playhouse

By Bailey Tennery
Flapjack staff

Once upon a time laughter filled the Arcata Playhouse on April 4, as a Grammy-nominated storyteller Diane Ferlatte, 72, acted out lively characters from one of her stories. The audience sat and listened quietly during the beginning, but throughout the end the audience became incorporated in the story by singing along or clapping when given instructions to.

Ferlatte believes that personal narratives as well as folktales can be used to help cross cultural understanding, and hopes her audiences grasps the message she is sending.

“It gives me the opportunity to pass on history, especially folk history, culture, and values, in the most traditional and effective way,” said Ferlatte. “Good stories can serve as excellent examples and teaching tools in the area of character development.”

Ferlatte’s mother was poor. She was a maid all her life cleaning and washing for Europeans.

“She was happy,”said Ferlatte. “Sometimes when you’re poor it doesn’t take long for the whole bottom to fall out.”

The Street Sweeper was Ferlatte favorite story she told that night. It was about a poor farmer who left his family to get a job in the city. The farmer swept the streets and kept his money in the shop of a jeweler. After five years the jeweler refused to return the money.

“No one wants to do business with a man who wants to steal from the poorest of the poor,” said Ferlatte. “You’re not rich by what you possess your rich by how you can do without. Those who know enough is enough will always have enough.”

Ferlatte believes that African culture storytelling is not a spectator sport in comparison to European culture. She appreciates audience interactions.

“I was once invited to tell stories at a brunch, their faces were stone, arms crossed, legs crossed, eyes crossed, no face,” said Ferlatte. “When I finished they roared and gave me a standing ovation, but I thought why didn’t they show me a sign.”

A high school psychology and history teacher Ana Farina, 34, received a master’s degree in education from the University of San Francisco. Farina full-heartedly believes in the art of storytelling.

“Storytelling is an invaluable tool that I use to help my students remember things,” said Farina. “It enables me to attach emotion to a concept or historical event in a way that a textbook never can.”

The part Ferlatte loves most about storytelling, is that when a person has a dark day a simple story can make them feel better.

“When we tell stories, especially personal stories where we open ourselves up to whoever is listening, there is often for the listener a value to be learned,” said Ferlatte. “There is also encouragement to be gained, knowing that others before them have conquered fears and challenges similar to their own.”

Before Ferlatte became a storyteller held an office job. The idea to change careers sparked when she adopted a four-year-old boy named Joey, with her husband Tom. The boy was glued to the television, she dedicated herself to breaking him from it.

A private school 5th grader, Kayla Fiedler, gave her full attention during the performance and expressed her thoughts about Ferlatte’s act.

“I liked how she used sound effects and sign language,” said Fiedler. “I also liked how she used her own life references in her stories.”

David Ferney, 54, has been in the world of theater for 40 years and has performed in 20 different countries. Ferlatte’s performance was a part of the Playhouse’s Family Fun Series which was sponsored by Kokatat Watersports Wear, Holly Yashi Jewelry and Wildberries Marketplace.

“We bring the schools here to the Playhouse instead of us going to them, to their schools,” said Ferney. “We do this so that they gain experience in theater and that they become exposed to the performers, and when they become older they come back to the theater.”

Erik Pearson a native Pennsylvanian, adds music to Ferlatte stories. Pearson studied music at Oberlin Conservatory of Music. According to him, there is no rehearsal before performances with Ferlatte.

“It is organic, most of it is listening and having an idea of how to respond to fit the story she is telling,” said Pearson. “She used to have another musician, but he moved away before she was about to perform at the Hollywood Bowl an outdoor amphitheater in LA.”

According to Ferlatte stories are a mirror, meaning that they teach us a lot about ourselves. There are many reasons why she tells stories, one of them is to educate other cultures.

“I like to tell stories to teach people about my culture,” said Ferlatte. “Other cultures have been telling our stories for long enough, it’s time that people hear our stories from our culture.”

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