The art of storytelling in the African American community is one that has dated back centuries. Because this kind of storytelling is so steeped in history, it has become even more important to make sure that stories of civil rights, racial equality, and breaking barriers are made relevant to youngsters - and adults - in the 21st century.
"When you read, your mind does a heck of a lot of the work for you, because it will begin to operate, to generate, to give you images. Well, storytelling does the same thing," says Von Washington.
"What we're trying to do is to tease the imagination - to give them the information that they need, so that they can put it all together."
Washington and his wife Fran operate Washington Productions, Incorporated, which facilitates storytelling presentations in elementary schools and events around the region. Dressed in matching vests, black pants, and red turtlenecks, the Washingtons step in front of their podiums and present their two-person show.
Aside from altering their voices and using the occasional prop, the set itself has no decoration. This allows the listener to get lost in the words and imagine their own setting for the characters.
The school performances are sponsored by local nonprofit Education For The Arts. The scripts are written by Von, an actor and retired WMU theater professor. He and Fran, who is also an actress, have performed their storytelling series together for over 18 years, and in front of over 100,000 students.
Von says he's been telling stories all his life, but the couple’s minimalist storytelling style took longer to develop.
“I did a one man show one year, in which it was me the microphone and the audience, and that taught me something – that I didn’t need lights, I didn’t need costumes, I didn’t need anything but the understanding of the characters. We could do it with less, and we could get booked to do it,” he realized.
The Washington’s stories generally focus on overcoming an everyday situation, and in trying to solve one issue, the characters end up learning more about their culture and past.
"My purpose, more than anything is to make sure the stories represent an African American perspective so that the children who are sitting there will also have something from their lives to deal with," says Von.
Outside of black history, the Washingtons also perform stories on bullying, peer pressure, and other issues school kids face in their daily lives.
Says Fran, "We use stories like historical figures to teach them it's not how big you are or how important you are to help you in life. We use Rosa Parks as a prime example - she was a very small person, a very quiet woman, and yet she stood up for herself by not giving up her seat on the bus."
Overall, the Washingtons are striving to help their audience understand the importance of sharing your experiences with others to create change, and to remember the past.
"One thing I hope they take away from it - I hope they realize what values are and respect. You know talk to your grandparents - they matter," says Fran.
Her husband agrees.
"I also like the fact that I think I'm providing a service for young and old, because I like to think this is generation to generation. If you don't do it, you're not gonna have it."
The Washingtons will continue performing at area schools through the end of March.