Illustration by Leo Gordon
On March 9, during fifth and sixth period, Berkeley High School (BHS) hosted multiple professional storytellers in the Florence Schwimley Little Theater for the Storytelling Festival. This showed the audience how storytelling can be an opportunity to get a message across or teach a lesson through the history and tales of different cultures. Put together by BHS English teacher Alan Miller, the show featured three different professional storytellers who told stories from all over the world. This diverse group consisted of Olga Loya, Charlie Chin, and Awele Makeba.
Olga Loya has been telling stories all of her life and has done it professionally for thirty years. Her stories come from all over, but many focus on her experiences growing up in East Los Angeles as well as family stories that have been passed along to her by her grandparents. As a child of parents from Chihuahua, Mexico she straddles both her American and Mexican cultures while telling her stories in a mixture of Spanish and English. Loya believes it is important for students to hear stories so that they can learn about other cultures and themselves: “Stories lots of times will touch something in you … it gives you a chance to look at the world in a different way,” she said. She loves to tell stories to inspire others to tell stories and let their imaginations run loose.
The second storyteller, Charlie Chin, told Chinese folk tales in the Teahouse style. He performed wearing a scholar’s gown and holding a folding fan, which are traditional techniques of classical Chinese storytelling. Chin tells stories to teach others life lessons. He believes that, when a person tells a story, it’s important to use the listener’s attention wisely. “What I try to do is … tell a story which has inherently in it some particular aspect which is positive,” he said. This way, students, or any listener, will walk away from his storytelling with a new idea in their minds. One of the stories he told at BHS during the Storytelling Festival taught that, while young people have so many things available to them, it is important that they don’t get too caught up in their opportunities of the moment and make sure to plan ahead for the future.
The third storyteller was Awele Makeba. She began her work as a storyteller in a children’s library and, over time, became more and more accomplished as a storyteller, traveling the world and performing in large theaters like the Kennedy Center. Makeba’s stories share important messages as well. During her performance at BHS, one of the stories she told was about a girl who had been treated unfairly because she was African American.
In the story, the mother tells the girl, “When someone throws dirt on your back, you gotta shake it off, stomp it down, and rise to the next level.” Makeba added, “Stories feed my soul … I think that stories save our lives a little bit at a time, that sometimes it is the kernel of wisdom inside of the story that speaks to you when you need to hear it.” She feels that stories are important for people to hear because humans as a species are wired for stories and because it helps people make meaning and sense of the world around them. Through stories, “We get to feel and see each other’s humanity … it builds a stronger and bigger community,” Makeba said.