There was a time when professional storyteller Linda Gorham could not imagine going to work in anything but a three-piece suit. A successful financial insurance executive who majored in math, Gorham saw a clear path ahead and had no reason to stray off course.
That all changed when Gorham saw a storyteller perform for the first time at a library in California.
“She had the whole audience mesmerized. There was nothing on the stage, just the woman, her voice and her imagination,” Gorham recalled.
Gorham told her son’s teacher that she would like to give storytelling a try, and she was instantly hooked. “I think the first time I saw those children sit there with eyes glazed and their giggles and you could watch their minds following me, it just called out to me, and I just did it,” she said.
At first, storytelling was just a hobby, and the admiration from children was the only reward. As interest developed, Gorham realized there was a market for her newfound talent, and it soon became a career.
On Thursday Feb. 16 at 3:30 p.m., Gorham, now an Aurora resident, will bring her talents to the Forest Park Library, performing a show in honor of Black History Month. She chose to tell the story of Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend an all white school in Louisiana in 1960. Many parents pulled their children out of school when Bridges arrived, and only one teacher was willing to have her in class.
Gorham, who will also perform African folktales at the library, said she chose Bridges’ story because it touches on themes that stretch beyond race.
“The reason I like to tell the story is that then it was a story of rejection by color, and we don’t have that blatantly done now, but what we do have is ‘you don’t wear your hair how I do, you don’t live in my neighborhood, you don’t dress like I do or you have an accent,” she said.
“I tell the story as a history lesson but I want to make the point that we have to stop and think and make sure we find out about the person (before judging),” she added.
Gorham has brought these messages and many others around the country and world, and estimates that she leaves Illinois to tour about 10 times per year. In 2004, she toured South Africa along with over 60 story tellers as part of a People to People tour designed to increase interaction between America and South Africa.
She is also a board member and planner for the Illinois Storytelling Festival, a co-founder of the Chicago Association of Black Storytellers and a coordinating member of the Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival, according to her website.
Gorham’s work has won her high acclaim from audiences and critics alike.
“Linda can rivet people of all walks of life with tales from all over the world…To some, Gorham is a hip, here-and-now, modern day griot,” wrote Jon Anderson of the Chicago Tribune, referring to the legendary West African storytellers who put their tribal histories in the form of riveting tales.
Though Gorham often incorporates her culture into her work, she does not like to be pigeonholed.
“I’m a woman in the world”I am who I am. I tell stories from any culture. Whatever hits me is what I do. I don’t bill myself as an African American story teller,” she said.
In addition to young children, Gorham also performs for teenagers and adults, and adapts her storytelling style to suit each audience. While the younger kids often enter the room excited to see her perform, one of the most enjoyable parts of performing for the older crowds is watching skeptical audiences slowly warm up to her, she said.
“Eighth graders walk in and go ‘a storyteller?’ They cross their arms, sit back in their chair and go ‘show me.’ It’s a tremendous thing to tell stories that resonate with them and see their bodies soften…and you know you’ve got them,” she said.
Gorham’s adult stories are often spoofs of popular children’s stories that she twists to reflect her own personal experiences as well as larger societal themes.
“The majority of my work comes out of folklore. The stories are not copyrighted so you can do whatever you want with them…I like starting with folktales and ‘Lynda-cizing them,” she said.
The stories, she said, are filled with irony and adult humor, drawing from her own family experiences both growing up and raising her own children.
One of her favorites tells the story of Cinderella from the perspective of the prince. Another gives Gorham’s take on the Three Little Pigs, titled “The Ization of the Three Little Pigs.”
Gorham has two children, now aged 20 and 21. When she began storytelling, the children were 4 and 5, but strangely enough, she never honed her storytelling skills with her own children.
“I never really told them stories. I read stories with attitude but I never actually put the book down and tried to tell them the story. It sounds really weird but I never really did it as a habit with them,” she said.
She did visit her sons’ schools to tell stories, sometimes entertaining school-wide assemblies. Once, she said, she performed at an assembly soon after her son had switched to a new school. At first, she said, her son was nervous because he did not want to make waves as the new kid in class. After her performance, however, he came home and told his mother that “everybody thought I was so cool because my mom’s the storyteller,” Gorham recalled.
Gorham also recently released her first CD, titled “Common Sense and Uncommon Fun.” The collection has won numerous accolades, including the 2005 Storytelling World Magazine award and the 2004 Parents Choice Award.
She also co-authored a book, “Telling Stories to Children,” published in 2005 by the National Storytelling Network as well as numerous articles, and has been featured on television on WTTW Channel 11.
More information about Gorham and her storytelling career is available at www.lindagorham.com.