Charlotte Blake Alston – Breaking Barriers Through Storytelling

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Charlotte Blake Alston storyteller in the Afriacan American Tradition

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Breaking Barriers using Storytelling

Charlotte Blake Alston writes…
My introduction to literature and the planting of seeds that later bloomed into storytelling, came in the 1950’s. In the midst of a social, political and cultural climate that suggested that my family and community were devoid of intellect, history or culture, my father began reading to me the literary diamonds and jewels that came from within our culture. Somewhere around 6 years old, my father read out loud the words of James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes. My father relished and touted the genius of these writers. He handed me the Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, selected a poem for me to memorize and launched me, as a child, onto a spoken word path. Numerous church banquets, teas and special community events were staging grounds for “a reading by Miss Charlotte Blake”.

I’ll share some memories of that time and fast-forward to the place where those germinating seeds and my experience in an independent school crossed paths with storytelling and an immediate realization of the power of this art form. On I faculty of 70, I was one of three faculty members of color. One particular event at the school served as a reminder of how invisible we often were, of how a genuinely well-meaning (and I really mean that!) community could unknowingly participate in perpetuating stereotypes and marginalizing members of their community. My concern was the statement those actions made to the children in the community. When I encountered storytelling, I immediately saw it as a window, a bridge, a tool I could use; a way in which initially children, could access, affirm, value and appreciate a cultural perspective that was different from their own.

That two-story repertoire (plus a set of Kiddie Rock& Roll songs!) later expanded to incorporate stories for all ages. I’ve since told at home and abroad in schools, festivals, concert halls, detention centers, a refugee camp; in collaboration with jazz musicians, choreographers and symphony orchestras. One of my most storyteller-reaffirming moments happened in a refugee camp in northern Senegal. So come on in! It’s okay. This will not be psychologically heavy duty! I am not an academician. This will be a chance to peek inside my head, listen to my heart and perhaps hear a perspective, a view that might serve you well in your own work.

“See you” on the pod cast.

Bio

BIOGRAPHY

Charlotte Blake Alston is a Philadelphia-based storyteller, narrator and singer whose interest in literature, the oral tradition and the arts began in childhood when her father read to her the work of writers and poets and encouraged her to learn and recite the dialect poems of African American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. After 21 years of teaching from the preschool through graduate levels, Charlotte chose to devote more time to touring and performing.

Today, Charlotte breathes life into traditional and contemporary stories from the African and African American oral and cultural traditions. Her solo performances are often enhanced with traditional instruments such as djembe, berimbau, nkoning, mbira, shekere or the 21-stringed kora. In 1999, Charlotte began studying the kora and the West African history-telling traditions of Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Guinea Bissau. Her teacher is the highly respected Senegalese griot (jali), Djimo Kouyate. Her repertoire is wide and programs are adapted to any age audience or grade level.

She brings her stories and songs to national and regional festivals, schools, universities, museums, libraries and performing arts centers throughout the United States and Canada, as well as local and national radio and television. Charlotte is the first storyteller to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra on both their Children’s and Youth concert series. Since 1994, she has been the host of “Sound All Around”; the orchestra’s pre-school concert series and continues to appear as a guest host and narrator on family concerts. Charlotte also hosts “Carnegie Kids”, Carnegie Hall’s Preschool concert series and has been a featured artist on the Carnegie Hall Family Concert Series in NY since 1996. She has been a featured teller at The National Storytelling Festival, The National Festival of Black Storytelling, and at regional festivals throughout North America. She has been a featured artist at both the Presidential Inaugural Festivities in Washington, DC and the Pennsylvania Gubernatorial Children’s Inaugural Celebrations in Harrisburg, PA.

In addition to her solo performances, Charlotte performs with her brother, world-renowned jazz violinist, John Blake, Jr. and his band in Tellin’ On The Downbeat: A Program Of Storytelling And Jazz. In Fiddlin’ With Stories, Charlotte and John perform as a duo featuring violin and kora, in a program that celebrates the role of stringed instruments in African and African American culture. Charlotte also performs in American Storyfeast with nationally known storytellers Gayle Ross (Native American) and Jon Spelman (European American). This unique concert celebrates each teller’s respective cultures through traditional and contemporary stories. She has collaborated with numerous instrumental ensembles as well as dance companies. She has been a featured narrator for several orchestras and conductors including The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, The Cleveland Orchestra, the Saint Louis Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Ensemble and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band.

Charlotte’s narrative voice can be heard on documentaries including Plenty Of Good Women Dancers, The Peddie School, and Crosstown. She herself was featured in the award-winning documentary Family Name that aired around the country on PBS. Kinocraft Media Productions converted her “Martin Luther King Storypoem” to video format for educational distribution. The video is entitled A Closer Look: Martin Luther King. She is a regular guest reader on WNYC New York’s Prime time with PJ.

Charlotte has received numerous honors including the prestigious Pew Fellowship In The Arts in 1994. She was selected as Philadelphia Magazine’s “Best Of Philly”® 1995. She is the recipient of the 1997 Commonwealth Of Pennsylvania Artist Of The Year Award (The Hazlett Memorial Award). The award recognizes individual artists “for…excellence in the Commonwealth.” She holds two honorary PhD’s from Seton Hill and LaRoche colleges respectively and was one of four Americans selected to perform and present at the first International Storytelling Field Conference in Ghana in August of 1999. She was the Director of “In the Tradition” 14th National Festival Of Black Storytelling in 1996

Learn more about storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston at her website: http://www.charlotteblakealston.com

2 Comments

  • By Sean, November 15, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

    Just posted another audio interview with Charlotte Blak Alston, recorded at the 2008 Mesa Storytelling Festival. Good additional content as compliment to Eric’s interview here.

    http://storyteller.net/amphitheater/40

  • By Dzagbe Cudjoe, November 27, 2008 @ 7:35 am

    How beautifully you express the power of storytelling to build bridges and increase cultural understanding while providing enjoyment at the same time.

    I hope that there will come a time when I can tell the stories in my book “Tales My Ghanaian Grandmother Told Me” in true and ancient Storyteller mode.

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