Oba William King

Oba William King uses a drum, emotive facial expressions and the African tradition of call and response to tell stories to children in Chicago on Feb. 2. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune)

Oba William King plays a djembe drum, a kufi covers his bald head, and West African Anansi folk tales are in his repertoire. And although King's work is inspired by ancestral art forms, it would only be part of the story to label King an African storyteller.

At a performance for children earlier this month at Edgebrook Community Church, King drew upon the African traditions of call and response, but his performance was far from traditional. During the course of an hour, King, a former military man, called upon his background in Shakespeare, dance, poetry and underground theater to include sound effects, mime, comedy and music. At times, he channeled Bill Cosby, The Three Stooges and Mister Rogers. Yes, he drew upon black oral traditions (when his early calls were met with hesitant, timid responses, he mildly played the dozens, quipping, "You'd be good people for a library"). But then he led the Hokey Pokey, too (albeit a funky Hokey Pokey).


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Each week, King offers several performances at libraries, schools and private events. But each February, during Black History Month, King's calendar bursts with bookings. For one of our follow-up interviews, I tracked him down in Texas, where he was offering storytelling for young children, poetry workshops for teens and a fundraising event for library benefactors.

"He has a gift for engaging young people of all age groups," said Toni Simmons, library service manager for the Zula B. Wylie Public Library in Cedar Hills, Texas, who brought King in after learning about him through the National Association of Black Storytellers. "He does that by making these art forms — stories, poetry and music, all of which he uses — seem applicable to their lives."

King is an effective storyteller, not just because he has the ability to weave words and capture the attention of young (and not-so-young) audiences, but because he embraces imagination and creativity in ways that transcend fact. As a child, he was called a liar by his family and teachers, but "lying" is a term embraced by the storytelling community. Those scoldings proved more prophecy than punishment: King recently signed up for the 25th annual Chicago's Biggest Liars Contest.

"I was an extremely vocal child in school," he said. "Today they would have given me ADD pills. I was constantly creating scenarios and being called a terrible liar, but even though I was making up stuff, I thought those imaginary friends were all there."

Because storytellers don't embrace truth the way journalists do, interviewing King is an act of surrender. King, who seems youthful at 57, tells me his origin story:

"I was born in Greenville, S.C., into a military family that moved around," he begins. "I was the third boy, and my mother wanted a girl. She had not even picked out a boy's name, so when I was born, she went into what today would be called post-partum depression. For three to four days my mother wouldn't hold me, so the au pairs, who were Geechee women from the Gullah Islands, took care of me. On my wrist I wore a band that said 'Baby King,' so my first memories are of angels holding me in the hospital, calling me 'Baby King, Baby King,' and singing Gullah songs in my ear. From that day I had an Afrocentricity that my brothers and sisters didn't have."

King said he followed the path his father laid out for him and joined the army after graduating high school in San Bernardino, Calif., where his family had relocated. The Vietnam conflict had already ended, so he was sent to Germany, where he trained in communications and helped set up relay stations. "Because I had this barrel voice," he said, "they could hear all of my commands, and I became group leader of my patrol."

Returning to California, King took a high-paying job as a scab during a phone company strike. Pulling off Highway 101 one day for a lunch break, he was enraptured by a group of beautiful young women. "This flock of scantily clad dancers, all in tights, crossed the road and went into this building, and I followed. They were in a little room under the stairs, and all these star athletes, football and basketball players, were peering in the door watching these beautiful women do jetés and splits. Suddenly, the door swings open, and a 6-foot-2-inch black woman says, 'Get in here or get away from the door!'"

King went in. Kay Fulton, dance instructor at Santa Barbara City College, explained that they needed men ("to catch 'em and throw 'em," he said). King never went back to work. He studied dance with Fulton and, through the G.I. Bill, paid for school. He made some money posing in the nude and helping out when a Shakespeare company needed dancers. He continued to act and, coupled with his college studies of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Paul Laurence Dunbar, King became a full-fledged bohemian — much to his military father's chagrin. King lived in a commune and started his own theater company to perform a play he wrote about creative awakening and black pride called "Just Us."

As he became a more serious theater student, he found himself working and studying with visiting actors and teachers. King said he began to notice that the best people — Mandy Patinkin, Richard Cusack, the Steppenwolf and Goodman members — were all from Chicago. After a 1987 stint playing Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers in a local production of "Bleacher Bums," King decided to head to the Windy City, where he quickly found himself taking tickets at the Organic Theater, working as a mail clerk for black advertising legend Tom Burrell, reciting descriptions for the visually impaired at Symphony Center, and playing Dracula in a Truman College production.

A few years later, in 1991, he helped organize the Monday open mike at Spices Jazz Bar. The intimate jazz club at Chicago Avenue and Franklin Street quickly became the epicenter of the black spoken-word scene.

"I had never seen that many black poets in one place," recalled poet Marvin Tate. "It hearkened back to the Harlem Renaissance or Bronzeville of the past. It was a cool place. There wasn't anything else like it."

As emcee, King found himself part of a group that nurtured the talents of young poets, writers and playwrights. Participants included Tate, Elizabeth Alexander and Sam Greenlee (best known for his radical 1969 novel "The Spook Who Sat by the Door"). Ted Witcher sat in the back taking notes on what would become his 1997 feature film "Love Jones," a fictionalized take on the Spices scene.

It was at Spices that King found his place in Chicago's black literary scene and also discovered his new name.

"One night Gwendolyn Brooks is in the audience, and I ask her to come and present," King recalls. "When she came to the stage, she looked at me and smiled and said, 'I could listen to you talk all day.' It was like she knighted me. I'm an actor, I'm a writer, I'm a poet, and when she said that, the door opened up for something more."

Using the space to workshop ideas, he revived "Just Us," discovering that it could work as an inspiration for children. Anxious about his show at Spices one evening, King went to the 63rd Street Beach to collect his thoughts.

"The waves of the lake are tumultuous," he begins, our interview shifting from conversation to dynamic performance. "They were pushing against the shore, and I hear it … 'Ohhhhh-baaaa, ohhhh-baaa.' I'm thinking, 'Who's speaking,' but then I think, 'I'm alone, out by the lake in Chicago, anything could happen, I need something to protect myself.' The waves pull back and there's a stick, and it was dry! I realized that I don't need a weapon, I need to get on my knees. Then the water said, 'Oohhhh-baaa … stand up!' Whoa! Whether that was in my head, it was God, or the spirits in the water, I don't know, but I got up, and put the stick in the back of my car and went to the show.

"When I get there Lady Bocion, one of these icons in the city of Chicago, she has decorated the room like a cultural palace and she says, 'I have something for you.' She put a kufi on my head and called it a crown, and she said 'All you need now is a staff.' I had the stick! I get it from the back seat, come in and the room is completely quiet. I tell them 'I was a standing on the 63rd Street Beach, and the water said 'Ohhhh-baaaa,' and Sam Greenlee stands up in the back of the room and says, 'The ancestors called your name. Oba is a race of black kings from Benin, Africa. The Obas are not kings on a throne; they are working kings. If the village produced iron, they are the best ironsmiths. If the village needs hunters, they are the best hunters. You are a bald-headed king, born a king.'"

Realizing his village needed mentors to nurture untapped talent, King took the Oba name and continued to adapt his talents in ways that could help youth. Soon falling under the mentorship of poet/playwright Oscar Brown Jr. and visual artist Margaret Burroughs, Oba William King began to learn the ways of storytelling from his elders. Over the past two decades, "the Storytelling King" has honed his craft. While he offers storytelling performances, he also mentors students in early childhood programs and after-school programs, using storytelling techniques to help with homework and life lessons.

Though King has been working with some illustrators to turn some of his original stories into children's books, the oral tradition of storytelling and performance that goes back to the Motherland is what he is most interested in using to reach young people. When I comment that his techniques wander from more traditional African storytellers, the bald-headed King shrugs it off. "I am always the African in the room, always always always," he proudly declares. "If you are black, you are an African born in America."

Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine and co-author of "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop." He lives in Chicago.

Go

Oba William King will perform "Goin' to Chicago," which depicts the role of African-American music in the Great Migration, at 6 p.m., Feb. 19, at the Chicago Public Library's West Lawn branch, 4020 W. 63rd St. Call 312-747-7381 for details.