It’s just you and the teller: no cellphones, no social media, no streaming video or television. “It’s like paying a visit to an old-timer on a front porch,” says Becky Stone, head of the Stories on Asheville’s Front Porch. The storytelling series returns each Saturday in July, with Stories from the Mountains to the Sea, showcasing six artists who represent different regions of the Carolinas. Their tales, whose inspiration come from a variety of folk traditions, reflect the unique cultures of Western North Carolina and the surrounding areas.
The SAFP series began as a class project for an adult education course, says Jim Stokely, a member of the SAFP leadership team and president of the Wilma Dykeman Legacy, a supporting organization. About 10 years ago, Sarah Larson, the founder of SAFP, and other students in the Leadership Asheville Seniors Program proposed a storytelling initiative. The Rhino Courtyard at Pack Place served as the venue until 2016; last year, the series moved to Jubilee! Community.
“This was a labor of love for Sarah,” says Stokely. “She is to be commended for doing this.” Larson moved out of the area four years ago; SAFP strives to build on her work and grow an audience for regional storytelling, says Stone.
Stone is a storyteller herself with a repertoire of historical figures she embodies onstage, such as Maya Angelou and Rosa Parks. She appears as a scholar-performer for the Chautauqua festivals held in Greenville, S.C., Spartanburg, S.C., and Asheville.
Last month, at the Buncombe County Chautauqua, she performed as Harriet Tubman, one of the leaders of the Underground Railroad and a spy for the Union during the Civil War. Afterward, still in character as Tubman, she took questions from the audience about her life. The catch was she only provided responses that Tubman could know, and she could not predict the future. Then, Stone transitioned to her current self, the scholar who researched the life and historical context of her character.
Stone describes the storyteller-audience relationship as the “fourth wall coming down.” No barrier exists between the teller and the spectator. “You want the house lights up so that you can connect with every person,” Stone says.
One of the SAFP performers who exemplifies this approach is South Carolina native Donald Sweeper, a Gullah historian and storyteller. “You have to feel your audience out in the first 30 seconds or minute,” he says. Sweeper began as a re-enactor of the Civil War hero and former slave, Robert Smalls. In 1861, Smalls was hired as a deckhand on a Confederate transport steamer, the USS Planter. One night, while on guard, he stowed his family and other slaves on board and sailed the ship to the Union side of the harbor, where he surrendered. Smalls traveled across the North on a speaking tour to tell his story and to recruit African-Americans for military service. Later, he entered politics and served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Sweeper’s stories originate from the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast. The Gullah are the living descendants of West Africans. Slave traders brought them to the southeastern coastal Sea Islands and Lowcountry through ports in Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. The slaves were from a variety of African cultures, and, once forced onto plantations to grow cash crops, developed their own languages and identities, depending upon their location.
Sweeper tells stories about “growing up Gullah.” He uses humor to entertain and educate people about the types of food, superstitions, sayings and everyday life in Gullah communities. “My material comes from relatives, from going to church, community picnics and school,” he says. One superstition he mentions is “don’t split the post.” It means if you and your partner are walking together on the sidewalk and there is a pole, like a light post, in front of you, go around it on the same side. Don’t allow the post to separate you: It’s bad luck.
For SAFP, Sweeper will also give a crash course in speaking Gullah. To do this, he takes a reading from the New Testament in American English and asks an audience member to read it aloud. Then, he will read from a Gullah New Testament Bible, so people can compare the two languages.
The series opens on Saturday, July 7, with Abby “The Spoon Lady” Roach, one of the best-known buskers in town. She and her musician partner, Chris Rodrigues, will perform stories and songs.
On July 14, the storytellers are Sherry Lovett, who offers stories, ballads and folktales from the Celtic tradition; and Frederick Park, a former student of Berea College, who will share stories based on the motifs of Appalachian folklore.
On July 21, Donald Sweeper will provide his mixture of humorous stories, songs and teachings from the Gullah tradition.
The series concludes July 28 with Nancy Reeder and Pat Stone. Reeder’s stories highlight outdoor recreation in the WNC mountains. Stone is a whitewater canoeist and teller of Jack and other mountain tales.
In the long term, Stone sees the goal of SAFP as the resurrection of a mountain tradition of gathering people together to listen to the knowledge of the locals. “Asheville honors those things and lifts up the stories,” she says.
WHAT: Stories on Asheville’s Front Porch presents Stories from the Mountains to the Sea
WHERE: Jubilee!, 46 Wall St.
WHEN: Saturdays, July 7, 14, 21 and 28, 10:30-11:30 a.m. Free