There are always lessons in Alyce Smith-Cooper’s work, whether they’re in the stories she shares as an ancestral storyteller or in the work she’s done in the community as a nurse. authorized, chaplain and ordained minister. Today she will relay some of those lessons through her tale of “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters”, by Caldecott winner John Steptoe.
“I started many years ago, having been an actress and working with a director and a regular production team,” she says of her work as a storyteller and performer. “It was then that I discovered the freedom to tell stories as a solo artist. With this, I was led deeper into the study of the art of storytelling.
Her performance is from 2-3 p.m. today at the David C. Copley Foundation’s Teen IDEA Lab in the Logan Heights Library, featuring the story of two beautiful sisters with very different personalities – one is very kind and the other is meaner. Organizers requested this story because of its depiction of how values shape character and character shapes life, she said.
Smith-Cooper, who lives in southeast San Diego, is a teaching artist and family arts program storyteller with the nonprofit San Diego Arts Education Connection and has previously performed at the Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse and Lyceum Theatre. She took the time to talk about her performance today, being recognized for her contributions and what she is learning during this season of her life.
Q: How do you approach preparing for an appearance like the one you have today? What do you think about what you want to convey?
A: First, by researching the topic in my area of interest. When it comes to African folk tales, I tend to prefer picture books because I can refer my audience to them so they can learn the stories for themselves and get a visual picture of the emotional impact the characters have on each other and on their environment. After finding the appropriate story, I begin to memorize it by imagining the different connections made by the characters in the story. After that, the characters take on their own lives and the story continues. In this story, the focus is on the depth of characteristics shown by the two girls in the community in which they live.
Q: What lesson do you hope guests take away from today’s performance?
A: The vital structure of community and the relationships people have with each other and with their environment, and with the land that sustains them.
Q: We spoke briefly this week about the growth it takes to move from the minimization of emotional expression to a more open acceptance of the spectrum of human emotion that a person truly feels in the moment. How has this process been for you?
A: For me, the process of emotional expression, whether overt or covert, begins with my ability to reverse roles with the character in order to better understand and express what their conflicts and intentions might be. I first started down this path by giving the characters voices and mannerisms that I could express as a storyteller. The result was increased enjoyment from the audience as they experience different levels of character personalities. I find that the more engaged I am as a storyteller, the more engaged I find my audience. The more engaged the audience, the deeper they receive the author’s message.
What I love about Southeast San Diego…
I love the seclusion of my patio prayer garden in the middle of a thriving urban community. My neighbors are caring and supportive of my ways of showing my gratitude to the Creator, including waving flags and burning incense. They take care of my well-being, in particular by taking out my trash.
Q: How has this increased emotional openness manifested in your work as an artist? Would you say it helped your art? Made more difficult?
A: Emotional openness is learned through repetition. The more I engage in this process, the easier it is for me to understand the characters I play and bring their words to life. It has helped me to be a more expressive artist and to bring out life’s nuances and lessons more effectively for the audience. I believe it makes me a better person, which adds to my ability to be a better communicator and more effective storyteller.
Q: You have been recognized for the contributions of your work in significant ways over the years, with inclusion in the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fameas a Legacy Artist Fellow across the California Arts Counciland more recently as a winner of the San Diego Museum of African American Art Demonstration “Guardians of Culture” next Friday. What does it mean to you to be recognized in this way?
A: The abundant recognition from my community serves to facilitate my growth and development in this senior season of my life. I have always considered myself a service provider in all the roles I have played in my life. As a result of receiving these honors and being recognized in this way, I now find myself becoming someone who can also graciously receive.
Q: How do you see your own work in the context of sustaining, expanding and elevating black culture?
A: As an older woman from the black community who has overcome (and continues to overcome) monumental life challenges, I rediscover the values I learned from my youth and, in the future, continue to motivate me and well to serve me. The creator’s tools of integrity, curiosity, gratitude and adoration continue to light my way. I can only be who I am. I can only be a scout for those who want to be framed. My choice of events, creative content, and style of presentation are my methods for conserving, developing, and elevating black culture.
Q: Why was it important for you to orient your work in this way?
A: When I was born, there was a general intention to marginalize African influence on American culture, to exclude Afro-centric influence. My style of storytelling is my method of expressing who I am as an African American woman. Everything – from my choice of language, to the costume, to the music, to the vibrant smile and laughter I express in my storytelling – serves this purpose. These are all important areas in my work.
Q: What was difficult in your work as an artist?
A: The hardest part was seeing myself so productive in my service as an artist. I have always volunteered for my artistic work while being paid for my job. The challenge for me in this season is to receive from my service as an artist the support I need to live.
Q: What was rewarding about this job?
A: The reward for my work is the joy I see expressed in the eyes and reactions of the public. The coming together of a community where people can see themselves as one family of human beings and relate to each other in a loving way.
Q: What has this job taught you about yourself?
A: It taught me that I have the ability to create a safe space in which people can feel emotions and reactions to situations that they might never have imagined before this artistic experience. For many people, this is a first.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Know yourself and be yourself!
Q: What is one thing that people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: That I’m really a very shy person.
Q: Please describe your ideal weekend in San Diego.
A: A happy and special event at the beach, with a band, good food, good company, lots of laughs and beautiful art.