Bob Gore closes the book on a storied career as tale teller
Like the leprechaun to the Irish or coyote to American Indians, Anansi the spider is the wily trickster in folktales from all over the African continent.
Storyteller Bob Gore, 71, has spun Anansi’s tales and other African folklore in Pittsburgh-area schools, arts centers and houses of worship for most of 15 years. Gore constantly pops up at cultural festivals and frequents the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum on the North Side.
But the busy Hill District griot likely tells his final Anansi tale today at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. He’s retiring to Gambia, a sliver of a nation in the region where the Anansi tales probably originated, in West Africa.
To Gore, Anansi always has represented struggle. The spider is the smallest of the animals in every story.
“He overcomes obstacles through intelligence,” Gore says.
The North Carolina native grew up in Pittsburgh but spent his young adulthood as an African-American in the turbulent, segregated South.
He became heavily active in the Civil Rights movement at the dawn of the 1960s. As a member of the Congress of Racial Equality, he traveled around the country to take part in sit-ins protesting unequal treatment of blacks.
He laughs when he recalls the times he was arrested for the nonviolent protests. Once, he spent a month in a small-town Alabama jail. But like Anansi, Gore and his fellow activists didn’t try to use force against a strong opponent. They depended on guile – in the form of passive resistance – to make strides toward equality.
When he returned to Pittsburgh in the 1970s, Gore worked as a copywriter and on the air at local radio stations. He taught acting at a high school and English at a technical school.
But through it all, “my heart was in my art,” he says. So he eventually quit his day job to work as an actor – and later, a storyteller.
Gore seems like a natural for the art form. He speaks using pronounced hand gestures. His voice, a full, buoyant, grandfatherly baritone, inflects dramatically whether he talks about politics, his past, his future life in Gambia – or Anansi.
Shona Sharif, once a lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and artistic director of the African Drum and Dance Ensemble, was the one who approached Gore about working as a storyteller.
“She said, ‘Bob, can you tell stories?'” he recalls.
“Well, I rose up to my full 5 foot, 7 inches. And I said, ‘I am an actor.’
“She said, ‘I have this grant money.’ I said, ‘Hold it! I am an actor who can tell stories!'”
Although he dresses in long, flowing clothes and beads and wears a round kufi atop his head, his African-style wardrobe, he says, is a comfort thing. He isn’t trying to pretend he hails from Africa – with which he has fallen in love after two visits, and will depart for next month.
Children sometimes ask him after a performance, “Why do you tell African stories?”
He replies, “I heard stories as a kid from all over the world, but I never heard African stories. So I want you to be able to hear what I didn’t growing up.”
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