Black Storytelling Alliance continues cherished tradition

Photo by Steve Floyd Nothando (l) and Vusi Zulu (r) with Mahmoud El-Kati at the 2022 Selby Avenue JazzFest

32nd annual festival coming up Sept. 22-24

In 1976, on the campus of the University of Minnesota, a group of students established what they initially called the Black Theatre Alliance. “We were more of an ensemble back then,” recalled Nothando Zulu. “Our numbers were strong, and we were represented by members of the African American community along with some from the diaspora.” 

The ensemble originally included the likes of Lou Bellamy, Horace Bond, Jerri Alexander, Jerry Blue, and many others who, across the decades, have graced the Twin Cities (and beyond) with their immense talents, artistry, and devotion to the craft.

From the very beginning, Nothando explained, the idea of the Black Theatre Alliance was to “take theater into the community” without the use of “a stage” or props. Over the years, the alliance naturally morphed into more of a storytelling collective than a theater troupe. 

In 1990, ​​Nothando and her husband Vusumuzi (Vusi) Zulu, made the journey to South Carolina to attend the festival of the National Association of Black Storytellers (NABS). Founded by Mother Mary Carter Smith and Linda Goss, the NABS was created to provide more opportunities for Black storytellers to be seen and heard while also ensuring that the “rich heritage of the African Oral Tradition be shared and preserved.” 

That year, the festival also featured legends such as “The Story Lady” Jackie Torrence. Inspired by the extraordinary experience, Vusi and Nothando knew exactly what they needed to do. So, not long after they returned to the Twin Cities, the Black Theatre Alliance was reborn as the Black Storytellers Alliance (BSA).

Today, the BSA is one of 15 national affiliates of the NABS, and, as the Zulu’s readily affirm, they take the art of Black storytelling anywhere that they are asked. “We’ve visited just about every type of venue you could think of,” observed Vusi. From schools to senior centers, corporations to community organizations, churches to prisons, as well as libraries, weddings, family reunions and even more, the BSA accepts all invitations. 

“This work is so important,” added Vusi. “We are sharing with the world who we are, our history, our contributions, our legacy. These traditions have to be protected and passed on.”

The Zulu’s note how a lot of requests come in around the time of Dr. King’s birthday, Juneteenth, Kwanzaa, Women’s History Month, and other celebrations. Then of course, in February there is Black History Month, or what Vusi adeptly refers to as “Black Artist Full Employment Month.”

In addition to visiting all these locations, the BSA is also dedicated to training Black storytellers, including those from the younger generations. The BSA’s 12-week class, which generally convenes twice a year, is known as “The Art of Oral Storytelling from an African/African American Perspective.” 

When coupled with the BSA’s year-long events, these classes help to fashion a philosophy that the Zulus call “edutainment.”

“We need other people to assume this mantle,” Vusi said. “As we’ve said time and time again, the art of storytelling must be nurtured, preserved, and allowed to flourish.” 

The 32nd Annual Black Master Storytellers Festival 

Next weekend, September 22 -24, the BSA will host one of its very own time-tested traditions, its annual festival. This year’s fest is entitled “Signifyin’ and Testifyin’: Strength of Our Youth…Wisdom of Our Elders Reimagined.” 

“I’m from the country and I come out of the church,” said Nothando, “whereas Vusi comes from the city and is of the streets. That is how the testifyin’ and signifyin’ dichotomy is drawn here.”

The 32nd Annual Black Master Storytellers Festival will take place each night, from 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm, at three different locations. All events are free and family-friendly. Likewise, all nightly events will be held in-person, but can also be streamed online at no cost.

The festival will kick off Thursday night at the Perpich Center for the Arts (6125 Olson Memorial Highway) with the opening ceremony storytelling concert. The grand finale storytelling concert closes the festival Saturday night at Studio 900 (900 Hennepin Avenue). Both nights will feature storytellers from the BSA. 

Bookended by these storytelling concerts is Friday night’s “Liars Contest” at the historic Capri Theater (2027 West Broadway), or as ​​Nothando prefers to call it—to the objection of Vusi—the “Tall Tales Contest.” 

“When I was growing up, liar was a bad word,” Nothando said laughing.

Anyone in attendance, as long as they keep it family-friendly, can participate and has five minutes to tell their best lie. Emceed by the legendary master storyteller, poet, author, and recording artist Mitch Capel (aka Gran’Daddy June Bug), the Liars (Tall Tales) Contest will be judged and trophies will be presented to the top three finishers in each age group.

Finally, in keeping with the BSA’s commitment to education, the festival will host free mini-concerts for local school children on Friday morning at two locations: Macalester College and the University of Minnesota’s Robert Jones Urban Research and Outreach Center (UROC). 

Advance registration is required, and space is limited. Teachers interested in signing their class up for one of these storytelling concerts, can do so by visiting blackstorytellers.com/school-mini-concert-restration, sending an email to info@blackstorytellers.com, or calling BSA at 612- 529-5864. 

For more information about the 32nd Annual Black Master Storytellers Festival, including a complete schedule of events, storyteller bios, and other details, visit BSA at blackstorytellers.com/31st-annual-master-storytellers-festival-daily-line-up. American Sign Language (ASL) services will be provided during all daily activities by Jamillah Hollman and Rosalinda Estrada-Alvarez.

For more information on classes and all the programs offered by the BSA, send an email to info@blackstorytellers.com or visit blackstorytellers.com.

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