Almeta Whitis’ storytelling prowess captures many an imagination
By Diana Louise Carter
The shoulder-length dreadlocks are gone, a concession to an ongoing battle with arthritis and other ailments.
But whatever her hair length, it’s hard to imagine that anything could stop Almeta Whitis from using stories and the arts to connect people.
In her long and varied career, Whitis has visited five continents, mostly for storytelling. She has danced professionally. She has taught in community settings, public school and college. She’s been a frequent presenter at education and arts conferences. And, at 71, she’s still evolving professionally.
Whitis, a native of Buffalo who has spent most of her life in Rochester, is still feeling the after effects of a car accident that nearly took her life in 1999. That has curbed her storytelling gigs somewhat, but she’s staying busy by writing and working on a course concept that blends philosophy with writing.
“Spirit gave me this idea,” says Whitis, who has been an ordained interfaith minister for 20 years. She taught a class with a philosophical bent for children last summer at Rochester’ literary organization, Writers & Books, and continued into the fall for adults. “My feeling is philosophy and stories are how people connected and committed and established their culture,” she says. “I just want to take it out of the realm of old dead white men and bring in women and other audiences, other people.”
Bringing in other audiences has been a lifetime of work for this artist, who got her first big break into the arts when, as a single mother, she was working for the Internal Revenue Service and taking college classes, too. It was the early 1970s when she appeared in a dramatic performance on stage and was seen by the man who would later become known as a Tony Award-winning choreographer — Garth Fagan, then teaching at SUNY Brockport and the precursor to the SUNY Economic Opportunity Center in downtown Rochester.
Whitis has been taking Fagan’s dance classes, but her get-up on stage, including a platinum blonde wig, made her unrecognizable to her teacher at first. Fagan recruited her, a 26-year-old novice, for his troupe, then known as Bottom of the Bucket But, because of her stage presence.
Focus on task at hand
Fagan said he recalls Whitis as a bright, warm mother of two little boys. “When she came to class, she left all the problems outside and just invested herself in performance beautifully,” Fagan said. Whitis spent that memorable summer immersed in dance classes and in the fall went on tour with the troupe.
“That was one of the happiest days of my life,” she says. “Garth opened up so many doors and areas of interest for me.”
Fagan says, “Besides her dancing, she had a wonderful aura of vocal talent,” and so she provided voice-overs and readings for the dance troupe. “I’m very proud to say she was a member of Bottom of the Bucket But,” Fagan says. “Whenever she gets on stage or gets in front of an audience, you’re going to get quality, depth and fabulous interpretation.”
During Whitis’ time dancing, she began to teach as well and after some years eventually left the company to teach full time at the former Allofus Art Workshop.
Housed in what’s now Writers and Books, Allofus (literally, “All of us”) was a low-priced community program of the Memorial Art Gallery designed to attract minority and low-income students who couldn’t manage the more costly creative workshop classes at the gallery. At its peak, the center was offering dance classes to 450 people a week.
A change in affiliation of the workshop led Whitis and another teacher to leave and to form their own school and company. Whitis started to perform as a storyteller between dances. But eventually she and the other teachers had a falling out.
“Probably because I was a dictator. I expected them to be as committed to this as I was,” she explains, exposing a steely side to her normally warm personality. “I’m not saying I was right.”
And she’s also not saying the end result was bad. Being on her own worked out creatively and financially. In 1978, she started performing with Young Audiences of Western New York and “that’s when my career really took off,” she says.
Whitis has performed in numerous schools and made the rounds of educational conferences. In November, she appeared at the New York State Reading Association’s conference. She plans to re-stage her one-woman show this winter or spring. It’s the work she did for more than 25 years, performing between two and six times a day, six or seven days a week.
“For a little black girl growing up poor and underprivileged … for me to have worked on five of the seven continents,” she says, marveling at her success. During periods when storytelling wasn’t such a rainmaker, she also taught in schools and community programs.
Twice Whitis moved to Arizona for a few years, as family members migrated before her. She established herself as a storyteller there in the early 1980s, working with the local young audiences organization.
Whitis says she got bookings even in Ku Klux Klan strongholds and was treated cordially wherever she went. But those initial bookings tapered off after the first year. She realized the organizations that hired her saw her only as a teller of African-American stories.
“Yes, I am Afro-centric. I’m proud of being a black woman,” she says, adding that Cherokee, Choctaw, Irish, Scottish and Romany are also in her lineage. “When I took the emphasis off African-American storytelling and just did storytelling, bookings shot up.”
It was during Whitis’ second extended stay in Arizona that her story nearly came to an end. But as with many things for Whitis, this event provides fodder for a rich and complicated story. Leaving a family reunion in Mississippi to return to Rochester for an engagement, she ran into torrential rains outside of Hattiesburg, Miss. She recalls driving in a rural area with no houses and then feeling a bump as if her tire had hit a curb. The next thing she knows, she’s lying on the ground, cold, and in pain. She thought she had fallen asleep at the wheel.
A man named John was talking to her, and another man was kneeling nearby.
“John said, ‘Don’t be afraid, God has saved you. Everything will be alright,’” she recalls. A cocoon of warmth surrounded her. “My body was no longer in pain. I had this warmth and this beautiful feeling of wellbeing and joy. If people in the world could feel what I felt, there would be no conflict.
“I felt I was enveloped by such a powerful love. Just warmth and belonging.”
Next, a state trooper was talking to her in a loud voice and she worries that she’s an African-American woman from New York in dreadlocks in the middle of Mississippi. And he’s telling her she’s going to be airlifted to a hospital, but she’s afraid of heights. She feels a searing pain again and when she regains consciousness, the helicopter is landing at the hospital.
Despite the trauma, she somehow hasn’t broken any bones or had any significant internal injuries. After multiple scans and examinations, the next day in the hospital a mass of white-coated medical staff entered her room.
“We had to come and see you, we had to come and meet with you. You are our miracle patient. You are the woman the angels saved,’” Whitis says they told her.
She found out the man named John who first came to her aid wasn’t from the place where the accident happened. No one knew him and he disappeared after help arrived.
The state police officer came back, and White relates his visit in the officer’s booming voice:
“Ma’am! I talked to you after the accident. Do you remember the car going airborne? Do you remember the car flipping over three times? Ma’am! Do you remember the car hitting the tree and exploding?”
She remembered none of it, except for the care she got at the hospital afterward. She spent a year recovering, and eventually moved to Arizona again.
Despite the lack of broken bones or organs from the crash, the incident marked the onset of rheumatoid arthritis for Whitis, which has hampered her ability to be as physical as she once was, at least between gigs. “When I start telling stories, I just get this energy. The adrenaline and the serotonin kick in,” she says. “I can jump and run and roll.”
Whitis returned to Rochester for good in 2008, just as the Great Recession hit and money for arts programs dried up. She started teaching again, this time writing classes at Writers and Books.
“She brings something unique to our program, for sure,” said Sally Bittner-Bonn, director of youth education at WAB. “She makes the arts about our lives. Some people teach a discipline as its own thing, in a vacuum. Across the board, Almeta always incorporates human experience into her art and teaching.”
Bittner-Bonn appreciates the value storytellers such as Whitis bring to American culture, whether told around the campfire or in 140 characters texts. “Perhaps you could argue that storytelling is a dying art in the traditional sense, but stories are vital to our human experience and they always will be,” she said.
Indeed, the connections stories make between people are the driving force behind Whitis’ work, the storyteller says. Whether her audience looks like her or not, she says, “I use my arts and my interest in history and culture to help heal that divide.”
Whitis: Writing Group Shares, Reviews Literary Creations
By Diana Louise Carter
Six women sit around a large table at a café on Rochester’s west side. Each has a stack of papers in front of her, comprising the works-in-progress of the others in the group.
One by one they read aloud, accompanied by the “whoosh” of the expresso machine and conversations at nearby tables. Normally they have a quieter venue, but the Arnett branch of the Rochester Public Library is closed today, so the woman have moved their weekly meeting to a coffee shop on Genesee Street.
When it’s Almeta Whitis’ turn to share, she reads a chapter from a novel she’s been working on for some time. And typical of her story-telling style, she breaks into song in the middle of her reading to sing a spiritual included in her chapter.
“It will be a superb audio book and you need to read it,” offers Terry Lehr, a retired professor of English at SUNY Brockport.
This group, known as Word Crafters, has been meeting since the 1970s, allowing older women a place to sharpen their writing skills. Today’s group includes retired educators, a retired social worker formerly from New York City, a former computer programmer and Army Reserves’ veteran who sits on the Rochester City School Board of Education, a woman who has worked in many different jobs, and Whitis, whose many credits include professional storyteller, working for the Internal Revenue Service, and dancer.
Whitis joined the group after returning to Rochester from Arizona in 2008. Most others at the table arrived after Whitis, but Eldridge McClarey started coming in 1996 after she retired from her job as an English teacher in the Rochester schools. She describes herself as coming from Buffalo by way of Pidgeon Creek, Ala.
As the ad hoc historian of the group, McClarey says Brockport professors started Word Crafters and it was affiliated with Writers and Books for a time. Several of the women say local writer Wendy Low encouraged them to join the group and then to publish.
“Its real purpose has been serious writing. We write anything we want,” McClary says. That includes poetry, plays, fiction, non-fiction, memoirs and science fiction. Years ago, the group members would send their works around to other members before the meeting and come ready to critique and be critiqued.
These days, though, that amount of homework has proven to be too much, McClary says, so the group now reads the works under consideration aloud. They go around the table offering praise first then take another turn offering suggestions for improvements, which leads to lengthier discussions.
Whitis’ work, for instance, describes a woman choosing an outfit and it includes considerable detail about each garment and accessory. Some in the group feel there just too much detail. Whitis admits that it may go on a bit long. She initially wrote the passage while participating in a national novel-writing challenge that urges writers each year to complete 50,000 words in the month of November. She was struggling to meet the daily word counts.
But she also said some of the detail is important to the character and her setting. “We’re talking about the Black Church. Dress and what you wear and all the little details are very important,” she says.
Writers are free to accept or disregard the advice they receive, but they all say they’ve gained something by being in the group.
Barbara Warrick-Fischer joined Word Crafters after learning about it from Whitis and now writes science fiction. “I just find this encouraging,” Warrick-Fischer says. “I always wanted to write, but I never felt I could.”