For 35 years now, the Wren’s Nest has presented professional storytellers at the house and at schools and community centers across Georgia. That’s a lot of storytelling! This summer, we’re adding a plot twist: We’ve asked our regular storytellers to tell us about their stories and to talk about their craft.
Starting this week and continuing every other week into August, we’ll post interview videos with our storytellers on our YouTube channel and website. Chetter Galloway is first up on Wednesday, followed by Gwendolyn J. Napier on July 22, Esther Culver on August 5, and Akbar Imhotep on August 19. They’ll talk about how they first discovered storytelling, how they came to the Wren’s Nest, how they frame Uncle Remus stories for modern audiences, what other kinds of folklore they mix in to their performances, and interesting experiences they’ve had as they present the adventures of Brer Rabbit and other critters.
You’ll hear some surprises. Akbar Imhotep, who has been telling stories at the Nest since the fall of 1985, confided that he didn’t know a single Brer Rabbit tale when he began. After several months of telling African folklore tales, it was gently suggested to him that perhaps he should learn a few Uncle Remus stories. He’s been performing them ever since. You’ll also hear Chetter Galloway talk about the one story by Joel Chandler Harris that he avoids telling because it’s too easy to misinterpret. Can you guess which one?
The Wren’s Nest has contracted with numerous storytellers over the past four decades. It has been one of the best things we do to make our legacy come to life and connect this institution with the tales that made the Joel Chandler Harris home a museum in the first place. We are so pleased that you can finally hear some of these talented artists talk about their lives and work. It was fun doing these interviews.
We hope you’ll enjoy listening to them.
In the strange, tumultuous months since The Wren’s Nest closed to the public in March, our 100-plus-year-old institution has had to adapt and change repeatedly. One of those adaptations has been taking our programs virtual — including our regular Saturday storytelling. And, we have to say, these performances have certainly been a silver lining for us!
While Joel Chandler Harris may be the reason The Wren’s Nest was preserved as a museum, at the heart of our history and our mission is storytelling. We love our Saturday storytelling and the opportunity they provide to share these tales in the form in which they were originally told. We hated the idea of discontinuing them during our closure.
So we adapted. And on Saturday, April 18, we launched the first virtual storytelling session, livestreaming the performance on our Facebook page at 1 PM (our regular storytelling hour). Visitors to our page could watch, comment, and share in realtime. We are very grateful to our regular Wren’s Nest storyteller Chetter Galloway for agreeing to be our first guinea pig for the experiment.
Since then, we’ve had 10 online storytelling performances with eight different professional storytellers ,with another scheduled this Saturday with Wren’s Nest storyteller Gwendolyn J. Napier. You can find all the performances on our website or YouTube channel.
Virtual storytelling has created exciting opportunities for us. First, we can now share the stories that entertained, inspired and taught so many (including Harris) to a wider audience than ever before. We can also introduce them to new audiences who may not have had access to Wren’s Nest storytelling in Atlanta.
Second, we were fortunate enough to receive a matching grant from the City of Atlanta to help fund this program. In this fundraising campaign, the City of Atlanta has agreed to match each $1 up to $2,000. The campaign ends tomorrow, Wednesday, June 24th and we hope you will consider donating. All donations will go directly to supporting the professional storytellers performing for virtual storytelling.
Third — and perhaps the most exciting opportunity for me personally — we have had the chance to share the talents of some professional storytellers who are new to us. With virtual storytelling, we reached out to the Kuumba Storytellers of Georgia and the Southern Order of Storytellers to enlist new performers for the virtual program. It’s been a delight to see the different, but equally talented performing styles and to infuse new stories into our Saturday storytelling. In addition to our beloved Brer Rabbit stories, we had a performance of a Nigerian folktale from Gloria Elder called “Why the Sky is Far Away.” We also had a performance from Barry Stewart Mann of a trickster tale called, “Coyote and Mouse,” which originates from the Native American and Hispanic traditions of Northwestern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Stewart Mann even incorporated Spanish into the story, teaching our audience (and honestly, me) some new Spanish vocabulary.
But we are forever grateful to our Wren’s Nest storytellers for jumping on board with this program. Our regular storytellers — Esther Culver, Chetter Galloway, Akbar Imhotep, Gwendolyn J. Napier — have helpfully rolled with the new circumstances, figuring out how to do their performances online and, in some cases, mastering new technologies to make it happen. We are lucky to have them on our team.
And we want you to get to know them better. So in addition to continuing with Saturday virtual storytelling this summer, The Wren’s Nest will be sharing interviews with our storytellers. The interviews will be released every other Wednesday starting on July 8, culminating in a longer interview with Akbar Imhotep in celebration of his 35 years of storytelling at The Wren’s Nest!
As summer begins and reopening remains uncertain, we are glad we still have storytelling to look forward to on Saturdays.
“But people were eager to forget. And so Americans both Southern and Northern flocked to minstrel shows and snapped up happy-slave stories by writers like Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris. White society was not ready to deal with the humanity and needs of freed slaves, and these entertainments assured them that there was no need to. Reconstruction was scorned as a fool’s errand, and Jim Crow laws were touted as sensible reforms to restore a harmonious land.”
As soon as I read the article I wrote and sent in a letter to the editor. They didn’t publish it, so here you go.
Harris’s depiction of plantation life is a far cry from “happy slaves, all faithful to a glorious lost cause,” as Von Drehle writes. The figure of Uncle Remus in particular is a subversive, developed character who tricks his audience—both the little white boy in the stories and the reader of the stories themselves—into witnessing nuanced lessons of cultural understanding and empathy. Fittingly, Uncle Remus introduced the world to Br’er Rabbit, one of literature’s greatest trickster heroes.
Harris first heard these stories while he grew up working amongst slaves on a Georgia plantation during the Civil War. Just a few years after the Jim Crow laws were enacted, he celebrated and preserved African-American culture and folklore that was widely derided and may have otherwise been lost. In doing so, he also satirized the very “plantation school” writers that Von Drehle lumps him in with.
If Von Drehle bothered to study the Uncle Remus tales, as I suspect he has not, I think he’d be delighted to find “Americanism at its best”—literature that tears down borders.
The Wren’s Nest House Museum
Historic Home of Joel Chandler Harris
Things have been a little bonkers with us lately, and our blog hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves. Sorry, baby — I still love you.
Part of the reason? It’s festival season, which means we do things like go to the National Black Arts Festival for three days. Go ahead, see for yourself (and enjoy some storytelling while you’re at it) —
That’s Curtis, storyteller extraordinaire, in our tent on the second day of the NBAF. He was filmed by the wonderful Spenser Simrill, Jr., who also recorded Akbar here a few months ago. Remember?
While being awesome all over town takes time, you can still get your fix if you follow us on Twitter, where the Wren’s Nest is consistently amusing. In the meantime, don’t worry — more excuses posts coming soon!
Remember what a great time we had with our Spring Break (Woo!) Storytelling Extravaganza last year? Oh, you weren’t there? Allow me to fill you in: so much fun.
Lucky for you, we’re ready to triumph once again! Next week, from April 6th – 9th, we’ll be offering storytelling every day at noon. And! To sweeten the pot, admission will be Buy-1-Get-1 Free!
We’re serious about how great this will be. Want proof?
Check out this outstanding and totally legit poster from general good guy (and Vernacular cover designer) Zach. The illustration should look familiar — we featured Fritz Eichenberg’s awesome pieces a few weeks back.
Weather permitting, storytelling will be held outside.
We encourage y’all to bring a picnic lunch. Tours will follow the performances or the lunches, whichever makes the most sense. We don’t want to rush your digestion.
Lest you start whining about this being only for students, allow me to remind you, crybaby: it’s during your lunch break! And boy are we MARTA accessible.