"Don't Throw Me Into the Briar Patch"
An interview with
Adella Adella the Storytella
New Orleans, Louisiana
Adella Gautier, also known as Adella Adella the Storyteller, lives in New Orleans. She travels extensively around the U.S. telling stories. She is Associate Artistic Director of Junebug Productions, a theater group/cultural center based in New Orleans. This interview was conducted in New Orleans by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Question: Please tell us about your work, your art.
Adella Gautier: I work as a storyteller and I like to work a lot with young people and old people, and with a combination of the young and the old - intergeneration work.
I think storytelling is important because, especially now, we've lost that human contact, the whole thing of TV. People no longer sit and talk the way they should. TV is there, families no longer sit at a table and have dinner and talk. You get your plate and sit in front of the television while you're eating and there's not a lot of conversation.
I think that through storytelling we can rebuild that much needed human interaction that is missing within a family, within a community.
I also do storytelling to help the young people express themselves, to use it in a lot of folklore from their particular tradition, to get a sense of where people are in terms of ethnic groups. It's like a return to the source.
With the older people it's like they're reflecting on where they've been. In bringing the old and the young together, it's a way of merging the old with what is now - what has happened with what's happening in the present.
Like maybe one of the senior citizens may tell a story, or sing a song, or do a jump-rope rhyme that they did when they were young girls. And then we'll have a kid saying "Well, we don't jump rope anymore," or "Oh yes, we do and this is what we say." You can see how a particular jump-rope rhyme may still be here but infused with a lot of the modern aspects of life, like something to do with a Big Mac. An 80-year-old woman, when she was growing up, there wasn't a Big Mac, so the references in their jump-rope rhymes are different. But the commonality of the jump-rope rhyme is a link.
Question: What kind of stories do you tell?
Adella Gautier: I tell stories primarily from the African American tradition. In the '70s, I lived in Boston and worked for an educational theatre company called City Stage Company. It was well known that there were lots of problems in the schools in Boston concerning desegregation. South Boston and the folk out there literally up in arms. What we started doing was trying to find the common aspects that people shared. We did that by dealing with the ethnic groups. We dealt with diversity by looking at the similarities. We started collecting stories from each of the ethnic groups represented in the class, and we realized that there were common threads in many of the stories. It was out of that diversity that there was unity. That's when I first started getting involved with stories from particular ethnic groups and then going within my particular culture. Most of the stories that I have been working with over the past six years reflect the African and African American culture. Many of them I've learned from other storytellers or from storytelling collections. Some I grew up with, like the Brer Rabbit stories.
Now there's a shift in my storytelling, in terms of trying to perform some of my personal stories and finding the universal aspects of my personal stories. There's certain elements that I find that I as a Black female experienced that have been shared by not only other Black females but by other females regardless of race. Or things as a child that I experienced that other children, regardless of who they are, or where they are, may have experienced also. So I'm working towards dealing with those stories. I'm thinking about when I was growing up I was known as Tessie. Nobody called me Adella or Adele which is my real name, they called me Tessie. I can remember when I stopped being Tessie and started being Adella and having people call me Adella and not Tessie. I want to put together some things that are called Tessie Jams which all deal with being this child and growing up in New Orleans, and how that contributed to who I am now.
The major piece that I'm working on now is called $5 a Day and Carfare dealing with the domestic workers in New Orleans during the '40s and the '50s. It is based on my recollections and those of my grandmother who worked for three generations of one family in New Orleans. I'm dealing with those stories, and also getting them from other people who worked as domestics or who have people in their families who worked as domestics. Also stories from people who hired domestics, which would primarily be, I guess, white females. It's going to come out of personal experience.
The one experience that's like a catalyst for putting this piece together is I remember when I was 17 years old, about the time when I stopped being Tessie.
I had graduated from high school and had been accepted at the university that I went to and my grandmother called the house and asked, not asked, but told my mother to send me over because the grandchildren of these people that she worked for were in town and they needed someone to babysit while the mother went shopping on Canal Street. She said they would pay me $20 to do it.
And I was thinking, well I guess $20 is more than the $5 a day and carfare that she was being paid. I remember saying "I'm on my way to college. I'm not taking care of any white kids, babysitting and anything like that. I don't want to be anybody's maid or nursemaid." I remember that incident. I remember being insulted and just hurt and outraged, but I don't remember if I went or not. I don't know, it's a thing that's kinda blocked. That's why, I guess, I'm doing this piece. I think in the course of doing this piece I'll figure out if I went or not. But I honest to God don't remember whether or not I went. My grandmother's dead. My mother's dead. My sister who also worked for that family - she's dead. So everybody I could ask if I went or not ... unless I find those people and ask them, which is another whole thing because they probably don't remember ... it probably was nothing to them. It is a different reason for my not remembering.
I also do work with a group called Legacy, young people ranging in ages from four to about 15. It's very rewarding to see these kids telling some of the old traditional tales and incorporating lots of things like a little rap into an old tale.
It's exposing them to a lot of stuff like Brer Rabbit and lots of others characters deep-rooted in Black tradition that until recently you didn't find in children's literature. It just wasn't there trickster characters which like Brer Rabbit were a coping mechanism for the slaves. The slaves worked all day from sunup to sundown, and sometimes they'd tell these stories. So here's Brer Rabbit, a small animal, who would get the better of the big animals like Brer Bear and some of the others. And I think that the slaves identified with him, and through their stories could come out on top. Brer Rabbit never got caught, he always found a way to come out on top.
They tried to fling him into their briar patch. He asked them, 'throw me in that briar patch.' Well, the predicament was he was stuck on the tar baby and he found a way to get off of that tar baby and back to where he belonged.
I think with the storytelling and going back to the source, it's almost like a spiritual thing. It's like we're getting off, this being stuck on, this tar baby of society and racism and things like that, and finding our own place in our briar patch by going back to who we are and where we came from, which means a return to some of the old ways. And that spirit in the sense of being able to get out of any sticky situation which has got to do with believing and hope has been lost. That's why we're losing Black males, especially. Here in New Orleans, every night somebody is dead, shot. We have to find this place within ourselves that can allow us to hope again because if there is no hope, then these kids will just go around shooting each other, getting hooked on drugs, or getting into these gangs. Something is missing, and part of that, I think, is just a sense of self, for one thing, who you are, - and then the respect for that self. If you have that self confidence and respect, I don't think you have to destroy as much, destroy each other, your community.
Junebug Productions can be reached at (504) 524-8257.
Photos by Nic Paget-Clarke
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