Juanita Westbrook has worked as a children’s advocate, and for 15 years she hosted a TV show, Juanita’s African-American Folktales. During the Nevada Humanities Festival & Chautauqua, she’ll perform folktales written by Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American author who worked during the Harlem Renaissance. Westbrook’s show, “Storytelling and Sweet Potato Pie,” runs 1-2:30 p.m., June 17 at Goodluck Macbeth Theatre, 713 S. Virginia St. Admission is free. For the full festival schedule visit http://nevadahumanities.org.
What’s your work like?
I am an interactive oral storyteller. I don’t use books. Some of the stories I write. Some I recreate. I just take stories and make them my own. All of my stories have morals. I think that comes from my African ancestry. Before the written word, there was the spoken word. I had a grandmother. You would ask her, “Why is the sky shaped like that?” She would always tell you a story, a parable. Stories can teach, and stories can heal.
Do you approach your role more as an actor, or as a teacher?
As both, I would hope. I worked not only at the Children’s Cabinet, I worked at Head Start. I have a background at Sierra Nevada Job Corps. I’ve seen the changes that have occurred, not only generational, but as a society. At the Cabinet, we had to use these buzzwords—“at risk”—to get [grant] money. I think all kids are at risk. It’s my job and your job as an adult, to tap that potential. Every kid has a potential.
What made you want to play Zora Neale Hurston?
Zora’s love of folklore, of her people, our people. She started out to become a teacher. She found out she had a knack for anthropology. She devoted herself to preserving the black heritage. She took it upon herself. She said [about losing our heritage], “Not on my watch.” That’s what I said: “Not on my watch.” I’m not a religious fanatic, but I’m spiritual, and I think it was meant for me to portray these five women that I do. I want to bring out these people who let me stand on their shoulders. They’re some phenomenal, classy, sassy ladies. I would love to go back to the roaring ’20s, the Harlem Renaissance, just to be around. She just had that character, had that something about her. When she walked into a room she was the life of any party. She died in 1960, buried in a pauper’s grave. No one knew anything about her. Alice Walker felt compelled that somebody had to do something. She hooked up with this lady, they wandered down to Fort Pierce [in Florida, where Hurston lived during her last years], saw no tombstone. Now she has a wonderful tombstone with a wonderful epitaph on it: “Here lies the genius of the South.” That just moved me so.
What kinds of reactions have you gotten from audiences?
I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve gotten. I believe that you and I and everybody else in this world, we’re tied to each other by something called humanity, and that’s bigger than you and I. I tell everybody that comes from the divine creator. I hope I am motivating someone. I do five terrific ladies that never got the recognition they deserved because of their time—and the racism in America. When people say, “I never knew that person. Who was that?” that’s what I love to hear. You never know where history will take you. Knowledge is not to be hoarded. It’s to be passed on.
How does the sweet potato pie factor in?
Our theme is food and culture, and Zora was a phenomenal cook. Zora’s place was always open. Even though she might be writing or working, you could always come in. There was always food, a pot of beans or greens or whatever it was. Sweet potato pie, that’s one of the things that I like to do. When I came out here from the South, everybody was about pumpkin pie. I was like, What, everybody’s got to know about sweet potato pie.
You’ll actually be serving pie during your performance?