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The art of telling stories: Mona Williams' lifelong passion

Photo by Nicola Edmonds, at Tarrant Dance Studios.

From folk legends to her own colourful life experiences, Guyana-born performer Mona Williams believes stories have the power to cross borders by sharing universal truths about the human condition.

There’s a story Mona Williams likes to tell, about a turtle who longed to be a bird. It’s an African folktale of colonised minorities forced to choose assimilation and self-rejection, of life’s dark corners and the power of love.

“It’s loud and noisy, but don’t worry, it has a happy end,” says the celebrated storyteller of one of the many yarns she unspooled at the Southland Arts Festival in April and May.

Williams, 75, was born in Guyana, educated in the US and has been a New Zealander since 1971, so it’s no wonder her stories range across borders: there are Norwegian legends, tales of Irish heroism and a uniquely Kiwi account involving rugby, shorts and a feisty young boy.

“It doesn’t matter where the story is from, or what it’s about. Telling stories is as vital to human development as eating or breathing. By telling stories, we make sense of life and others’ experiences.”

Over the past 37 years, Williams has performed at festivals in Edinburgh, Israel, Canada and Melbourne. It takes her around seven months to write, rehearse and produce each show; the piece she took to Southland, Celebrate Story, is tailored for both adults and families.

“I aim to connect with a whole huge range of people, not only by allowing the audience to share their own life stories but also by speaking to the universal human condition,” she says. “We talk and we clap and we dance – it’s not just about me.”

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If anyone’s qualified to tell stories, it’s Williams, even though she took a roundabout path to get there. Ballet was her first love (“but you don’t get many black faces dancing Swan Lake!”) so she detoured into teaching and radio broadcasting. In 1967, she won a Fulbright scholarship to Stanford University, where she studied communication and got a job at a local TV station; one of the programmes she worked on there, about black music and dance, won an Emmy Award.

Stanford is also where Williams met her Kiwi ex-husband. That’s how she wound up in Wellington writing school journals, running up against both racism and sexism in early 1970s New Zealand, before moving to Palmerston North, where she taught storytelling at Massey University. Along the way, she had two daughters, including Sydney-based singer Sheba Williams, raising them on her own after her marriage ended when her husband came out as gay.

Now a grandmother of seven, Williams remains a staunch believer in the power of oral communication and still works as a relief school teacher in both Wellington and Auckland; she describes the South Auckland primary schools as “vibrantly, culturally diverse – a golden opportunity to learn, as a storyteller”.

There are also other shows to plan, including Once Upon a Dance, which she and friend Jan Bolwell hope to tour later this year. An autobiographical work, it covers everything from racism and politics to breast cancer and domestic violence.

If you want to make Williams laugh, mention the ‘R’ word. “Why would I ever retire?” she says. “I have too many stories left in me to bow out.”

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.

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