In Stories Are Who We Are, Diane Ferlatte expertly weaves folk tales and songs from the African American tradition with the story of her mother’s life. It's an evening of storytelling for adults that celebrates all women, perfect for Women’s History Month — or any other month for that matter.
When she started to present it Saturday night at the Indiana History Center, the stage manager had the house lights turned down. Ferlatte said, “This is not a theatre piece. Turn up the lights!” She wanted to be able to see the audience so there would be the traditional give-and-take that makes good live storytelling such a rich and engaging experience.
The frame song for the night was one Ferlatte had heard in Hawaii: “Mama, You’re My Hero.” On stage with her was Erik Pearson, a perfect accompanist — attentive and skilled — who played banjo and steel body resonator guitar and he sometimes sang harmony when Ferlatte led us in song.
Ferlatte told us how her mama had been raised "to know how to make do" by an aunt in rural Louisiana. The aunt worked long days in the sugar cane fields but also made hoe cake and clothes out of flour sacks for the children. Ferlatte’s mama also learned to love hymns. Many years later, after the family had moved to California and she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, she remembered the songs she knew from church.
Ferlatte’s telling style was exquisitely polished and yet so relaxed that we moved seemingly effortlessly from that a real-life journey to flying with High John the Conqueror and other slaves and then back again. We were present as a sharecropper shared first the tops of his crop and then the bottoms with a landowner that wanted to cheat him. We followed ol’ Scratch to a cave to trade in our bundles of worries. And more.
Even Ferlatte’s call-and-response style was smooth. She would sometimes just pause until we filled in a missing word. She was checking to see if our attention was still with her, and she pulled us gently back when we started to stray. Her approach was respectful and caring rather than manipulative. We sang and laughed and clapped with her willingly.
When Ferlatte finished telling us about her mother’s life, including the way she had welcomed death, Ferlatte looked at her watch and realized there was a little time left. So she asked if we had any questions. “What’s your favorite story that you haven’t already told us?” someone called out.
The answer: a hilarious, ironic story of the time she used a gift certificate from her daughter for a massage at a posh resort. Ferlatte felt as out of place as “a fly in buttermilk” until she talked to some of the other women there and was surprised by what they had in common.