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Donna Washington: Passing on the oral tradition

Meal times are occasions of celebration when Donna Washington is at the table. Her father spun tales and legends each evening over dessert and she remembers going to kindergarten already knowing Greek mythology. (Washington and her siblings believed their father actually met Zeus and Midas in his travels!)

A professional storyteller for 16 years, Washington tours national festivals and schools year round, on the road 10 to 12 days a month. Her audio CD, Live and Learn: The Exploding Frog and Other Stories won a Parent's Choice Award two years ago, and Harper Collins has recently published her latest book, A Pride of African Tales. Her first book, The Story of Kwanzaa, is an annual holiday bestseller; Washington has a second Kwanzaa book under contract and several other manuscripts and book ideas are circulating with her editors. ("I'm working on a piece called, OOH, I'm Gonna Tell It, about a boy and his little sister," she says.)

Comfortable in front of groups of all ages, Washington once attended an audition showcase in Maryland, at which--after her final story--one of the panelists remarked, "you are a walking Disney movie!"

Washington related half a dozen of her stories, over lunch, as we talked of the future of the spoken word, career paths, the importance of family dinners, and the need to discover and notice community.

The Independent: Catch us up, will you, on this current raging debate in the storytelling community, about live, real-time storytelling versus the widely-distributed, mass produced, video version.

Donna Washington: There are some serious discussions going on about what constitutes storytelling. Most folks describe storytelling as the real time interaction between an audience and a performer. In order for it to be an actual storytelling event, the audience has to be able to affect the storyteller, and the storyteller has to be able to affect the audience.

Watching a videotape of someone telling a story to an audience is not storytelling. Reading out of a book is not storytelling. Logging onto a site and watching a digital teller tell you a story is not storytelling. Popping a DVD into your van and watching someone tell a story is not storytelling.

These things are coming up because so many people are absorbing their entertainment on big and little screens. There is a concern that the video generation doesn't really understand the importance or power of live interactive performance.

I love the scene you've described from your childhood of your father telling stories to you and your brothers and sisters over dessert. What was that like?

My father is a very well-read man as well as a history buff. He has always loved stories. He loves making them up as well as sharing traditional tales. My father told us the stories in the first person--he even threw my mother into the stories of Midas and Zeus to make it more credible. He taught us our Arthurian legend. He told us that he was apprenticed to Merlin the magician. He would sit at the head of the table doing slight of hand magic while he spun tales of Camelot!

Your website ( ) offers a full range of story samples for different age groups. The audio clips are distinctly different. As a performer, you must plan each session independently. How do you do that?

Different age groups have different challenges. With the youngest audience members, you should have quick paced stories that are not challenging to remember. I love telling to the pre-K through 2nd grade crowd because the stories I have for them are fun and fast paced.

The 3rd through 5th grade group needs more interesting story lines and unexpected twists every now and then. They really like ghost stories and plot lines that stretch the imagination.

Middle schoolers are trying really hard not to be little kids anymore. I tend to start out by helping them remember that stories are fun. They like stories about decision-making, they like stories where someone takes on authority, they like stories that flirt with the edge of racy. This is the first group that encounters my personal family stories.

I trot out the more profound yet funny stuff for high schoolers. I have long anecdotes and stories framed in historical perspective. This is an easy audience in a lot of ways because they've grown out of the awkward "if I like this will it make me uncool" stage.

The best audiences to perform for are the intergenerational audiences. There is so much delight in watching kids and parents interact with each other as they figure out the answers to the questions I pose together.

You and your husband have a son and daughter, 7 and 4. How has being a parent affected your art-making? What's bedtime storytime like?

I have learned more about storytelling from my children than I ever learned in school. If I tell a story that doesn't work, they ask a lot of questions. Being a parent has helped me understand what it is that helps people connect with storytelling. Watching them right up close as they enter a story is very exciting.

They don't ask for a wide variety of stories. They like a few over and over. Their favorite one right now is The Gingerbread Man.

Do you write or do research at home? Where's your "creating" environment?

I work at home on my laptop when I'm writing. That generally means my work station is wherever my lap is--unless one of my kids is sitting in it. I have the living room as my office, but I rarely write in there. I pay bills and answer contracts in there.

I practice stories anyplace. I drive and tell, shop and tell, work out and tell, cook and tell--you get the idea. If my mind isn't otherwise occupied, I'm probably thinking up stories!

In 2004, children's media choices seem without boundary. What's the future of your craft? How will the oral tradition survive this short-attention span, flat screen assault?

Storytelling has survived the printed word, the advent of movies, and television. People will forget about it for a while or not even realize it is important, but every now and then they'll encounter a storyteller and they'll be hooked up all over again.

As for parents, all I can say is, turn off the radio in your car. Turn off the tapes and pop out the CD for a few minutes. Telling stories can be something as simple as relating what happened during the day.

The personal connection of storytelling doesn't just drive my craft, it drives us all. No matter what technology we create, it will never take the place of two or more people sharing a story. EndBlock

Contributing Writer John Valentine can be reached at

Excerpt from:
Shansa Mutongo Shima, A Pride of African Tales
(based on a Tabwa narrative)

by Donna Washington

Well people, at first the villagers did not approve. Bwalya’s father told them that there would be ten days of feasting before the wedding. He hoped that all the festivities would help the people look on Shansa Mutongo Shima with more kindness.

On the first day of the festival, people, Shansa Mutongo Shima brought a gift to the village. He brought many game animals for the feast. Everyone was very pleased.

Every morning after that Shansa Mutongo Shima went out into the bush, and every day he returned to the village with his arms laden with game animals. Nobody knew how he did it. Sometimes hunters would go out into the bush for a long time and they would not catch anything. But every day Shansa Mutongo Shima returned with his arms laden with game animals. The villagers did not know how he could do this, people, and they did not care. They were happy to have a hunter who could bring back so much meat. They did not care, people, but they should have cared. You see, Shansa Mutongo Shima was a shape changer.

  • Donna Washington: Passing on the oral tradition

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