By Marta Yamamoto
BRENTWOOD -- Kirk Waller has been immersed in the arts for 20 years, combining his love of story, literature and the visual arts into a storytelling style uniquely his own. Fusing the spoken word, rhythm, music and movement, Waller entertains his audience with personal stories, legends and folk tales. On Wednesday, this award-winning storyteller will bring his art to the Brentwood Library in honor of Black History Month.
Waller's stories are fast-paced and fun, designed to entertain and educate at the same time, whether children or adults.
"I like to do a lot of movement. I have a background in mime and gesture," Waller said. "There's musicality; I use songs in my stories and play a banjo. So it's all-encompassing, with body, music and words.
"A lot of the stories are participatory. I definitely try to engage the audience and pull them in whether it's adults or kids."
Waller draws his stories from African and African-American folk tales, most of them old public domain tales he has come across or researched, then recreated to make his own. He uses John Henry as an example, citing hundreds of legends that have survived over the years.
"When I tell his story, it's pretty close to the original legend as well as I researched quite extensively and got some updated information on who the real John Henry was, so I incorporate that information as well," he said.
Folk tales are fun and entertaining but also contain both history and insight into the past. Waller uses the story of Brer Rabbit to illustrate the idea of power and how many slave stories focused on power because the slaves had none.
The use of a trickster in folk tales, one who was smaller and less powerful, also reflects the idea of social position during those times.
The full-time storyteller also works at Stage Bridge Senior Theater in Oakland, serving as storytelling director and teaching seniors. Waller averages five or six gigs a month, varying from house concerts, a lot of libraries and schools and some festivals. The number increases to 20 to 25 performances during Black History Month.
A couple of prestigious recognitions attest to his skill. In 2010, Waller was awarded the J.J. Reneaux Emerging Artist Grant by the National Storytelling Network, providing him with a monetary benefit and national exposure. That same year, the Parents' Choice Foundation selected Waller's CD "But Why? Stories, Music and Song" for its Gold Award.
Waller prizes that children label his storytelling "funny." He strives to make sure they are entertained and have fun, enough to match the fun he has performing. He says his physicality and humor go a long way in keeping their attention.
Waller sees storytelling as an important facet of society, a way to keep culture alive.
"We tell about the ancestors to keep their memories and stories alive," he said. "This transcends Black History; I don't care if it's of their grandparents, parent or great-great grandmother from Ireland. Ask about stories and learn the stories. That's oral tradition in a nutshell, keeping the stories alive."
On top of preserving culture, Waller sees stories as a way to explore important issues in a nonthreatening way that everyone can relate to.
"Folks say that stories allow them to explore different emotions and aspects of life in a safe way," Waller said. "Whether it's history or a rabbit scared of a bully lion; whether it's something as simple as an animal story or something as intricate as slavery and its complications; stories have a way of bringing in issues everyone can connect to."
For his Wednesday performance, Waller promises to enchant with folk tales, music, legend and historical stories, but he won't know his program until he sees his audience.
What: Storyteller Kirk Waller
When: 4 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Brentwood Library, 104 Oak St.
Details: 925-516-5290. For more information on Kirk Waller or to purchase his CD, visit www.kirkwaller.com.