The man in the dashiki
Akbar Imhotep, who celebrates his 35th anniversary as a storyteller at the Wren’s Nest this fall, did not know a single Brer Rabbit tale when he started performing at the house in late September 1985.
He began by telling African folk tales that were similar to the Uncle Remus stories Joel Chandler Harris popularized. One day the executive director at the time, Madeline Reamy, pulled him aside and asked, “Akbar, when are you going to tell some Uncle Remus stories?”
“As soon as I learn some,” he answered.
He learned some, and has been telling them ever since at the Wren’s Nest and in schools and community centers across Georgia.
Akbar is an important figure in the history of the Wren’s Nest. He has been associated with the house longer than just about anyone, including Joel Chandler Harris himself. More importantly, he represents a change in the way the Wren’s Nest presented its history and the legacy of the Brer Rabbit stories.
The Wren’s Nest had storytellers before Akbar, but they were usually people impersonating Harris or Uncle Remus, many of them holding forth at a plantation cabin in the back yard. Akbar was different. He was the first storyteller who personified the African origins of the majority of the Uncle Remus stories. He told African tales that were antecedents of the Harris stories and underscored their cultural roots by wearing a dashiki.
“What was I going to wear: a suit and tie?” he says.
Akbar comes from Perry, Ga., where he fell under the spell of biblical stories and an uncle’s storytelling at an early age. After a stint at the University of Georgia, he settled in Atlanta during the 1970s and went to work as a stagehand and then as a puppeteer at the Center for Puppetry Arts. You can hear him talk his background in an interview we did this summer.
When he first visited the Wren’s Nest with a school field trip group, he knew next to nothing about the house or the stories that had made it worthy of being a National Historic Landmark. Over the years, he has come to embody them.
We’re very glad he discovered us and helped interpret this legacy for new generations.
Congratulations, Akbar! May the story go on and on.