By Steven Robert Allen
When Brenda Hollingsworth-Pickett was a little girl growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah she somehow got her hands on a miniature puppet theater. "It had little green curtains," she says, "with a jester in front." She isn't quite sure where the theater came from, but it quickly became the focus of her attention.
She made some simple sock puppets and developed some shows for her tiny venue. At first, she just amused her family with her little puppet stories. Soon, though, she decided to broaden her horizons. She began charging 25 cents a head to kids in the neighborhood who flocked to her house to witness her puppeteering.
This marked the beginning of her vocation as a storyteller. She also gives a lot of credit to her mother. "My grandpa taught my mother to shoot a gun and to pick cotton," says Hollingsworth-Pickett. "He didn't believe kids should have to know anything more than that." As a consequence, her mom had a third grade education.
"She didn't have much formal schooling. She wasn't an educated woman. But she knew how to tell a story. My mother gave me the oral tradition."
Hollingsworth-Pickett's mother came to Utah from Mississippi, and she never owned or learned how to drive a car. "We walked everywhere, but that was OK, because it gave us time to smell the roses."
Hollingsworth-Pickett learned from a very young age how to keep herself entertained. She spent a lot of time "reading clouds," making up elaborate stories to go along with her interpretations of the big pillowy shapes. For the entertainment of her nephews and nieces, she also concocted stories about an entire family of monkeys who only came out when adults weren't around.
Even though she grew up in a poor part of town, she still has a soft spot for Salt Lake City. "It's a physically beautiful place to grow up in," she says, "with the mountains, the Great Salt Lake, the landscaping, the architecture, the four seasons."
Her childhood wasn't an easy one, though. Her father abandoned her when she was still in the womb, and it also wasn't easy being a girl of Black, Native American and European descent in a town as milky white as Salt Lake City. She was an honor student in school but wasn't allowed to date any white boys. Given that most of her fellow students were Anglo Mormons, she didn't have many opportunities for teen romance.
She also had to cope with more overt forms of racism. One of her teachers often called her a "brown cow" and a "pig." When she began to develop a serious interest in singing, she was irritated to discover that she wouldn't be considered for the lead role in her high school's production of The Sound of Music because of the color of her skin. "One of the recurring themes of my life," she says, "is that I spent a lot of time wondering, ’Where do I fit? How am I going to fit into this world?'"
Hollingsworth-Pickett refused to let these obstacles restrain her. She won a vocal competition at the age of 17, nabbing an all expense paid trip to Florida. Early on, she also developed a great deal of pride in her roots. "I was always conscious of my own culture," she says, "even though no one gave it to me."
She got married and went to school in Southern California, studying voice and dance. Eventually, Hollingsworth-Pickett moved to New Mexico with four kids in tow and got a job working for the South Broadway Library.
"My first time telling stories in front of an audience was a fluke," she says. "A teacher was sick, and someone asked me whether I wanted to read to a group of kids."
She was extremely nervous, but once she got going she realized she had a real talent for storytelling. She began organizing storytimes at the library, eventually growing the program from five kids to more than 200.
"Storytelling is one of the purest gifts we have," she says. "It's the one art in which I can use all my skills—acting, singing, puppets, dancing. Stories travel through time, coming from kings, queens, war, marriages gone bad, childbirth and anything else you can think of."
She's been working as head librarian at the Menaul School for the last couple years, but she's also been very active in the local art scene. She's singing at Yanni's Opa Bar (3109 Central NE, 268-9250) every Saturday from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. through February. "I do Negro spirituals, classical, jazz, a little bit of blues."
She's performed in various theatrical productions throughout the city, from OmniRootz' The Colored Museum to Walk Like a Queen at the South Broadway Cultural Center. The National Endowment for the Humanities gave her a grant to perform her spectacular impression of the great Lena Horne at obscure venues around New Mexico that don't often host high quality live performances.
Her biggest project right now is running La Siringitu (1501 Mountain NW, 244-9105), a homey African-themed vegetarian restaurant she operates with her daughter and another partner. "Running a restaurant is by far the hardest thing I've ever done," she says. That's especially true because La Siringitu is much more than just a restaurant. The space also houses a salon and day spa, and Hollingsworth-Pickett wants to transform it into a kind of miniature cultural center as well.
"We've got a poetry night every Friday at 8 p.m. We've also got workshops and dances. On the first Saturday of every month, from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. we've got an event called Teatime with Stories, which is $3 for kids and $4 for adults. If anyone is interested in storytelling, they should definitely stop by our café."
If she can make time, she'd like to do radio and television programming for kids as well as kids' CDs and books. She's also writing a play composed of vignettes from women's lives.
In other words, she's a very busy woman, but at least she's found a comfortable niche for herself here in Albuquerque. "New Mexico has grown into the fiber of my being," says Hollingsworth-Pickett. "Utah will always be my home, and Africa will always be my home, home, home, even though I've never been there. If I can somehow get the money to go to Ghana someday, I know I would be truly blessed."
For details, about Brenda Hollingsworth-Pickett's storytelling schedule and services, log onto www.thestorybird.com.
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