Curtain Call: Robert Lewis and Gina Burnett
What: Stories from the Earth (American Indian storytelling)
Renowned storyteller and Cherokee education specialist Robert Lewis will return to SIU this week to share stories. Sponsored by WSIU in conjunction with the Shawnee National Forest, Lewis will perform Friday, November 19 at 7 p.m. in the Student Center's Ballroom D as part of Native American Heritage Month. The performance is free and open to the public.
"We had Robert here twice before, and we've had standing-room only [audiences]," Vickie Devenport, WSIU outreach coordinator, told Nightlife. "Actually, last year he was in the ballroom, and we had to bring in more chairs because Robert does a participatory kind of storytelling where he actually chooses people from the audience to come up and help him tell the story. It's very unique, and it's very different in terms of storytelling. It's a lot of fun, and it really engages the audience. He is very intergenerational-- he has small children to elderly [people] help him with these stories, and part of the beauty of the storytelling is the personality of the people he chooses to come up and help him tell. It's awesome."
This year Gina Burnett, the outreach coordinator for the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, will join Lewis for the presentation.
"They do outreach together for the Cherokee Nation, and Gina does all of the work with organizing trips for schools to visit the center and going out to the schools," Devenport said. "There's a lot of teaching of traditional crafts, and she does those kinds of things, so what she's going to add to the performance this year is that there will be lots of items that she brings with her-- traditional craft types of artifacts, and she'll talk about the cultural history of each piece, and Robert will tell a related story that will go with each piece. It's going to be different for the audiences here. There will be a little more emphasis on how they used whatever it is that Gina brings to show and talk about. She'll be able to relate the culture and the history of those particular pieces as they relate to the nation."
While Lewis is an artist by education and practice, his foray into the world of storytelling came by accident.
"There were several children getting pretty antsy, and he was a docent at the Ancient Village, which is set up in an outdoor area with a culture center where they take children or students around, and they have a recreation of a native area," Devenport said. "Anyway, he was entertaining them, kind of, because they were getting kind of rowdy, and they were poking one another and they were about to get into trouble. So he starts to tell them a story-- it's a story that his father told him as a little boy, and it's the kind of story that he says he never forgot. He starts telling this to the children, and they were just enthralled. He got their attention, and they were no longer poking each other. Then someone he worked with overheard him doing this, and so she said, 'I didn't know that you told stories,' and that kind of got him started."
Lewis's love of storytelling started with his father.
"At the age of seven, I heard my first traditional story," Lewis said in a press statement. "It came from my father on a family vacation, and it concerned the creation of the Milky Way and why the other stars are scattered around the sky. I had stories read to me from books, but to hear an explanation for the universe, while looking at the night sky, was an extraordinary experience. I have never forgotten it. In the summer of 2002, I told this story to a group of people awaiting a tour of the ancient village at the Cherokee Heritage Center, and so began this unique journey I find myself on."
One of the great things about stories and storytelling are the universal themes of life.
"I have found in the universality of stories, a common thread; the wide range of human modes of conduct, the experiences of being a human being... our dreams, our follies, our enlightening ideals transformed into a vocal interchange between the story and the people surrounding it," Lewis said. "These traditional stories teach the experience of being alive, of explaining why things are the way they are, and to take the story and relate the circumstances to your own life. The driving force behind the traditional story may be an animal-- to capture the child's sense of wonder inherent in all of us-- but the undercurrent theme may have a deeper revelation for adults as well. I strive to convey this in each story I tell."
For those with prior Friday-night plans, Lewis and Burnett will also perform Thursday, November 18 at 7 p.m. at the Harris-Pruett Community Building in Harrisburg, Illinois.
who: Robert Lewis and Gina Burnett
what: Stories from the Earth (American Indian storytelling)
where: Student Center Ballroom D
when: Friday, November 19