With animated language and facial expressions, hisses, shrieks, and other homespun vocal effects, Jackie Torrence (born 1944) has breathed new life into the age-old art of storytelling. Her retelling of African-American folktales and classic ghost stories, as well as her delivery of modern tales, has established Torrence as a strong presence among contemporary storytellers worldwide.
Hailing from an extended family of tale spinners, Torrence learned everything she needed to develop her craft from her grandparents, aunts, and uncles. She was born on February 12, 1944, in Chicago, Illinois, but raised in the South. Torrence spent her early childhood on Second Creek in the North Carolina countryside, where she lived on a farming settlement with her grandparents. Jim Carson, Torrence's grandfather, regaled the family with traditional tales told to him by his own father, a former slave. It was from Carson that Torrence first heard many of the narratives her audiences enjoyed-the "Br'er Rabbit" parables (which recount the adventures of a furry friend) and other African-American tales that have been passed along from generation to generation by descendants of slaves in America's rural South.
Torrence left her grandparents' farming settlement when she was ready to attend school in nearby Salisbury, where she lived with an unmarried aunt. As a schoolgirl, she discovered that she had a speech impediment and had to withstand the taunting and laughter of her classmates. She was a lonely child, and the speech impediment might have destroyed her self-confidence were it not for the nurturing attention and coaching given to her by two extraordinary teachers. One of these, grammar school English teacher Pauline Pharr, invited Torrence to write stories and offered to read them out loud to the class, giving the shy child a "voice"-and a creative presence-in the schoolroom.
Just before she entered high school, Torrence discovered that she had impacted teeth, an uncommon condition in which a second set of teeth develops, cramping space in the mouth and obstructing speech. With corrective dental work, she was able to overcome her speech difficulties, though progress was slow and came only with persistent effort. A high school teacher, Abna Aggrey Lancaster, stepped in to offer the support and encouragement that Torrence needed, coaching her during and after school, and even on weekends. Soon Torrence was reading the Scriptures to audiences that gathered during school assemblies, gaining valuable experience for a future career that she would never have anticipated for herself.
After high school, she attended Livingstone College and joined the drama club, taking her newly found flair for public speaking to another level. But Torrence did not remain a coed for long. Before graduating, she met and married a ministerial student. The young couple began a life on the road, traveling from state to state and visiting church communities in the rural South. When Torrence told Bible stories to church members, she did not realize she was honing skills that would later come in handy.
Torrence gave birth to a child, whom she named Lori, but her marriage to the little girl's father did not last. Needing to find a job to support herself and her child, she left Lori with her mother in Granite Quarry, North Carolina. An opportunity for employment presented itself in the town of High Point, where the director of the public library hired her as an uncertified reference librarian. With her $99 paychecks, which she received every two weeks, she had barely enough money to make ends meet. But it was at the library where Torrence was to discover that her talent for storytelling could be put to professional-and even lucrative-use.
It all started one winter day in 1972 when the children's librarian called in sick and the library director begged Torrence to put aside her other tasks and read a few of Richard Chase's Grandfather Tales to the rambunctious crowd of three-and four-year-olds that had gathered for story time. Torrence reluctantly agreed and was virtually thrown into what was to become her new role, as a teller of tales. With her irresistible manner and engaging expressions and gestures, she soon had the youngsters transfixed. In fact, the children were so taken with Torrence that she was named the library's regularly featured storyteller, with a reputation that was quick to grow. Soon larger-than-ever audiences filled the library's children's department, eager to hear tales from the one they called "The Story Lady."
Torrence's gift for tale telling was a boon not only for the library but also for Torrence herself, who discovered that demand for her services could relieve her from the burden of poverty. Off-hours, parents sought her out to entertain at their children's birthday parties. "When I found storytelling and realized that I could make that extra money, and pay my bills, and feed and clothe my child-I went after that job with a passion," she told Mary Whited in an interview for Storytelling Magazinein January 1999. "Storytelling meant that I didn't have to go on welfare or food stamps. In the beginning, I worked for anything. If someone had $5 to pay, I'd go. If they had $500 to pay, I'd go. If they had $2 to pay or even a box of canned food … I'd go."
When invitations poured in from people who wanted The Story Lady to work her magic at events in local and neighboring communities, it came time for Torrence to choose between her job at the library and a freelance profession that seemed promising, yet risky. She chose the latter, seizing every opportunity to build her career, which led once again to a life on the road. After an article about her appeared in the Charlotte Observer, word of The Story Lady spread to the National Storytelling Association, which invited her to attend a convention in Memphis. There, Torrence booked 50 engagements in one day, setting the fast pace of her career. Appearances at festivals and schools, as well as performances on radio and television, kept her moving from state to state, and eventually from country to country. Audiences welcomed her in Canada, England, and Mexico, and record companies released recordings of her storytelling.
After these dynamic days of her early fame, which grew steadily throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Torrence found the time to translate her highly visual, performance-based artistry to the page. In 1992, she wrote Bluestory, a play about blues music, legends, and poetry (she performed in the staged version, which opened to good reviews in London). In 1994, she published The Importance of Pot Liquor, a book that showcases the stories told to her by her grandparents. In 1998, she came out with Jackie Tales: The Magic of Creating Stories and the Art of Telling Them, which features 16 tales of all kinds, with storytelling tips and closeup photographs of Torrence that show how facial expressions and other tricks can make a story come alive.
But Torrence's stories do more than just entertain. Her "Br'er Rabbit" tales-and other African-American "animal tales" passed down to her from descendants of slaves-are rich with history and illuminating evocations of a lost age. They also document the antique dialect of the slaves, a mixture of African mother tongues and white English learned on southern plantations ("Br'er," for example, means "brother" or "mister"). On one level the tales serve as moral parables, in which wisdom is prized and greed is penalized, and on another they're instruments of insurrection, rife with seemingly nonsensical code words and phrases that signaled secret places where slaves would meet to escape north via the Underground Railroad. "Now people are realizing that the heritage of Br'er Rabbit is more than little kiddie stories," Torrence told Seattle Times reporter Mary Elizabeth Cronin in May 1998. "[T]hese stories were important to the making of history."
Torrence could keep up the hectic pace of her career for only so long before it began to take a toll on her health. A case of arthritis worsened in 1993, leaving her dependent on a wheelchair. Nevertheless, she kept going, scheduling six or eight appearances each month. But over the next five years, a series of disparate health problems escalated. In June 1998, she was hospitalized for Pickwickian Syndrome, a relatively rare, serious condition involving congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory and pulmonary complications, weight control problems, and distressed or nonfunctional muscles and bones. Her condition left her immobile, and she had to learn once again how to walk and feed herself. A therapeutic regimen, which included oxygen treatment, physical therapy, and weight reduction, put her on the road to recovery. After losing 150 pounds and making strides in her rehabilitation, she was able to leave the hospital in October.
While she was hospitalized her medical bills piled up, depleting her health insurance coverage as well as her personal funds. She sank deep into debt-until the storytelling community rallied on her behalf, establishing the Jackie Torrence Medical Fund and raising thousands of dollars from supporters. At the 1998 National Storytelling Festival, where Torrence had been scheduled to perform, the storytellers who appeared in her stead donated their stipends to the fund. Other participants and attendees made contributions as well, yielding more than $5,700 at the festival alone. Though a gifted speaker, Torrence struggled to find the words to express her deep-felt gratitude in the pages of Storytelling Magazine: "I haven't worked since June, so I haven't made a cent. But my bills have been paid. I'm not eloquent enough to find the words to thank people for what they've done for me."
To Torrence's fans, however, her eloquence remains undisputed. Preserved on audio and video tape as well as in print, her vast repertoire of stories-which runs the gamut from hair-raising scary to knee-slapping silly-continues to delight audiences. She has taken her responsibility as a storyteller seriously, choosing her heroes and villains very carefully (in Torrence's world, stepmothers, who are far more plentiful in these days of broken families, no longer come across as evil). And her influence is far-reaching: Both Disney and Steven Speilberg's Dream Works team have approached her for advice on telling stories better, while corporations like IBM and AT & T have learned from her how to sharpen their communications skills.
Although Torrence has benefited greatly from the support of others, particularly in recent times, she does not forget the years of struggle in which she relied solely upon herself. These are the realities that so many classic fairy tales neglect to impart-which is why you'll be hard-pressed to find a story like "Snow White" among Torrence's cache of tales. Relating a childhood anecdote in which an aunt told her, "Snow White, baby, you ain't never gonna be," Torrence explained to the Seattle Times: "It wasn't meant that because I'm black I'm never going to be white. It meant … whatever I get, there isn't going to be a prince getting it for me. I've got to make my own way."
Notable Black American Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, Gale Research, 1992.
Storytelling Magazine, January, 1999, pp. 4-5.
"Jackie Torrence Updates," Storynet, http://www.storynet.org/resources/jackie.htm (February 21, 1999).
"Storyteller's Hisses and Howls Will Grab You," Seattletime.com http://seattletimes.com/news/entertainment/htm198/alttale_052198.html (February 21, 1999).
"Storytelling, African-American Style," Northwest Family Magazine, http://family.go.com/Features/family_1999_01/nwfm/nwfm19storytell (February 23, 1999).
"What's Hidden in Br'er Rabbit Story?" Seattletimes.com, http://www.seattletimes.com/news/entertainment/htm198/altbrer_052198.html (February 21, 1999).