Since its founding in 1998, the Providence-based non-profit Rhode Island Black Storytellers has worked to share “the stories and heritage of people of African descent,” according to Ramona Bass-Kolobe ’72 MA’83, a founding member of RIBS.
Throughout the year, RIBS hosts various performances in collaboration with local community organizations such as churches and schools. It also offers community workshops in storytelling and writing in an effort to aid the “development of the next generation of storytellers,” according to the RIBS website.
Valerie Tutson ’87 AM’90, another RIBS founding member, said that she was inspired to start the organization by the “national Black storytelling festivals” that she attended for several years. Tutson felt encouraged by the “energy and the family and cultural feel” of the festivals and wanted to expand access to similar storytelling experiences in Providence.
Backed partially by funding from the Rhode Island Foundation, Tutson, Bass-Kalobe and fellow collaborators founded RIBS with the mission of bringing “some of the best Black storytellers from (around) the country … (and) the diaspora to our community so that people could see the diversity of styles and just the wonderful artistry that is all over,” Tutson explained.
Funda Fest: a global storytelling celebration
Every January, RIBS invites local organizations to participate in seven public performances across Rhode Island in its annual Funda Fest, which is attended by audiences from all across the world.
The Funda Fest is named after the Funda Arts Center, which Tutson visited while in Soweto, South Africa. “Funda means ‘to learn’ in Zulu,” she explained. “Since we know that the most ancient way Black folks and really every culture in the world teaches and learns is through storytelling, it just seemed to make sense to call it Funda.”
RIBS was initially founded for the purpose of hosting Funda Fest, but has since expanded to organizing other events, allowing over 120,000 people to engage with the group over the years, Tutson said.
For this year’s Funda Fest, RIBS worked with 10 groups, most of which were Black organizations, dedicated to sharing the stories and culture of Black people.
For April Brown, co-director of the Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading, one of RIBS’ community partners, this collaboration is necessary for the “longevity” of any arts organization.
Collaborating also lets audiences “see the expansiveness of Black art in Rhode Island,” she said.
The two organizations hosted a joint event for the Poetry Reading’s 25th anniversary. Performers who were not selected to recite a poem for the event were invited to do so at Funda Fest.
According to April Brown, the work of George Houston Bass — founder of Rites and Reasons Theatre and Langston Hughes’ former personal secretary — has brought many Rhode Island storytellers and artists, particularly those that are Brown alumni, together. “It’s through George that we get to investigate the Black folklore … (and) have deep conversations about” Black storytellers, she said.
‘Natural and organic’: community partnerships
April Brown also discussed the larger dynamic across Black arts organizations in Rhode Island. Each organization has a unique body of work that they “work really hard to create,” alongside amplifying the work of others, she said.
Partnerships between organizations are typically “natural and organic,” Tutson said. “We really want it to be about relationships and not about checking a box.”
Johnette Rodriguez, who was previously a member of the worship committee at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South Kingstown — a partner organization of RIBS — has known Tutson since the ’90s. Their collaboration began when Rodriguez looked at the people coming in to give lay-led services and realized “they were almost all white male people. … So I said, ‘let’s try to change that.’”
The performances RIBS has done at the congregation have been “theatrical,” “educational” and “transforming,” she added.
James Sloane, technical director at RIBS, also emphasized the organization’s transformational work. RIBS talks “about a lot of powerful, serious topics … (and) the way they do it is so amazing because at no point do they make people feel like victims,” he said. “It actually makes people feel empowered.”
According to Andrea Summers ’05, middle school principal at the Paul Cuffee School, RIBS performed at a school event free of charge through a grant. “Our students loved it so much,” she said.
Another RIBS performance took place at the Providence Performing Arts Center for a crowd of at least 2,000 students. “You have all these kids that usually can’t pay attention … and they’re all there in the moment,” Sloane said.
While community work is a valuable part of RIBS’ work and mission, “people don’t always understand the value of” such collaborations, April Brown said. “But the audience does.”
Expanding from the pandemic, future goals
Since the beginning of the pandemic, RIBS’ Funda Fest has been virtual and incorporated pre-taped broadcast performances with live Zoom performances.
“COVID gave us an opportunity. … We were able to expand all over the world in bigger ways for less money,” Tutson said, adding that RIBS is working toward providing “really good” experiences in the future, both in-person and virtually.
In its future endeavors, RIBS is also working to create a culturally-based storytelling training program with $50,000 in funding from the Nonprofit Innovation Lab, Tutson said. Intentionally choosing storytellers is an important part of building this program, she added.
Through this program, Tutson hopes to work with a wide variety of artists, including those who may not consider themselves storytellers. Poetry, hip-hop and rap, personal and historical stories, song and more are all part of cultural traditions, she said.
“We’re excited about the idea of having people come in with whatever their interest is … and working with them to develop programs that they could sell, (and) that we can put on stage and include in our programming,” she added.
Sloane also hopes to expand the RIBS’ online presence by creating a streaming platform for the organization.
“It’s important that these tales are being captured and recorded in high quality, very theatrically, with costumes and lighting and amazing sounds,” he said. “I would like to make sure that the tellers … have an opportunity to have their version of these tales immortalized.”
Mikayla Kennedy is a Metro editor covering Housing and Transportation. She is a sophomore from New York City studying Political Science and Public Policy Economics.