June 19, 2003 - Galveston County Daily News: Liberia RPCV Kijana Wiseman teaches lessons of Juneteenth as "The Griot"

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Liberia RPCV Kijana Wiseman teaches lessons of Juneteenth as "The Griot"

Read and comment on this story from the Galveston County Daily News about RPCV Kijana Wiseman who performs as "The Griot" known in West Africa as a collector of memories and a lyrical teller of tales. Kijana lived in Liberia, West Africa for six years. She originally went to Liberia as a Peace Corps Volunteer working on her master's degree thesis. She liked it and stayed for 6 years--four additional years after her tour was finished. While in Liberia, Kijana performed for heads of state, hosted television talk & entertainment shows and specials on ELBC-TV, where she did everything from hosting The Temptations, Mariam Makebe and Hugh Masakela, to interviewing the infamous Idi Amin. She was also assistant principal of the National Liberian Cultural Center School and multi-level drama instructor at the American Cooperative School. As "The Griot," Kijana becomes different characters on stage--using songs, stories, slides, comedy, characterizations, costume changes, her 3.5 octaves and audience participation to entertain and educate. Read the story at:

Stories, songs teach lessons of Juneteenth*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

Stories, songs teach lessons of Juneteenth

By Laura Elder
The Daily News

Published June 19, 2003

GALVESTON — It was her voice that caught their attention, sometimes honey like Billie Holiday, sometimes Ella Fitzgerald’s glass-shattering style. She could sing as sorrowful as a flute, happy as a drum.

But when Kijana Wiseman sang, boys whose thoughts were outside the pavilion, under cotton candy clouds, stopped fidgeting. Women with straw hats tapped their feet. Little girls, some with hair braided and beaded, swayed and hummed along to Sunday morning songs.

Wiseman calls herself “The Griot,” known in West Africa as a collector of memories and a lyrical teller of tales. The day before Juneteenth, the anniversary of the oldest known celebration of slavery’s end, she used her voice, songs and costumes to take her Kempner Park audience — some members as young as 5 — through a history of slaves, trackless trains and heart-rending sacrifice. Wiseman’s performance was one of several events Wednesday at Kemper Park, organized by the Galveston Historical Foundation Education Committee and the foundation’s African-American Committee.

The purpose of the events was to pass on the legacy of the Underground Railroad, which really wasn’t a railroad at all, but a line of ex-slaves, free African-Americans and whites who, under the most dangerous of conditions, helped slaves escape to freedom.

Among Kempner Park trees, event organizers took children through an imaginary slave escape route, where they met characters such as Harriet Tubman. Tubman, a woman born into slavery, escaped with the help of the railroad and later went on to help an estimated 300 people to freedom in the North. Nailed on trees were notices, one advertising a “choice cargo of 250 fine, healthy negroes.”

Heart-rending stories were eye-openers for audience members such as Londyn Crump, 10.

“I learned that slavery was harder than I thought it was,” Crump said. While organizers worked to use material that was appropriate for children, they also didn’t soften history.

Galveston actor and playwright Matt Stanford portrayed a slave who was captured in the African villages by slave traders while sleeping. He told the audience how slaves were torn from their families, marched through the jungles for days toward the coastline, jammed together in the bottom of ships and later paraded on a stage, humiliated as buyers examined their teeth, their legs, their muscles.

“That’s the experience of your ancestors,” Standford said.

With the rhythms of jazz, opera and gospel, Wiseman took the multi-cultural audience to a place in the woods, where slaves deceived their masters with song. Sometimes, spirituals were coded with messages about impending escape attempts, directions for how to head north on the Underground Railroad, or which houses were safe havens. Her voice deep and low, Wiseman sang:

“Go down Moses, way down in Egypt Land.

“Tell Old Pharaoh let my people go.”

Michael Kauffmann, 14, helped organize the event. What he found most interesting, he said, were the coded songs and other clues that helped slaves escape or warned they were being followed.

“They would set up signs,” Kauffmann said. “They would hang out a quilt with a wavy pattern on it that would tell them to go off the road, and not stay on track.”

Wiseman, who spent six years in West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, ended her performance by throwing out $1 bills, causing children to squeal and dive for the money. They didn’t get to keep the money, but earned a lesson about freedom and making choices, particularly about avoiding drugs.

“Don’t lose your dignity and freedom for a dollar,” she said.

On June 19, 1865, a Union general landed in Galveston to tell of the Civil War’s end and that all slaves were free. It was 2 ½ years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Liberia RPCV Kijana Wiseman tells audiences stories of African-American ancestors

Read and comment on this story from the Houston Chronicle about RPCV Kijana Wiseman who tells audiences stories of African-American ancestors. Ms. Wiseman lived and worked in West Africa for six years, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer, then with the Ministry of Culture as assistant director and technical advisor to the National Liberian Cultural Center­­a government sponsored village of writers, singers, dancers, actors and musicians located in Kendeja, Liberia. Read the story at:

'The Griot' tells audiences stories of*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

'The Griot' tells audiences stories of
African-American ancestors

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Off stage and on, Kijana Wiseman is a chameleon with facial expressions and melodic movements that grow large, then melt into each other like notes in her 3.5-octave coloratura soprano range.

Her gifts of song, storytelling, poetry and drama are evident even before she takes the stage as America's griot, pronounced gree'-oh -- the keeper and teller of tales, folklore and history in African villages long before pen and ink.

She travels the world, combining talents with seven costume changes, props, slides and audience participation to tell the history of her -- and everyone's -- African-American ancestors through various characters and musical numbers, including a South African "click" song to Billie Holiday.

"We are all one people -- just with many paint jobs," said Wiseman, 52, daughter of Houston retired teacher Mary Helen Wiseman for whom Houston's Wiseman Library is named and who also is a descendant of Sam Houston, and El' Ray Wiseman, a gospel quartet singer.

In her one-woman show, Wiseman incorporates what she's learned in the classroom, both as a master's-degreed student of education and as a teacher, and from six years in West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer and television talk show host. She also uses influences from her home neighborhood, Houston's Third Ward, where she grew up.

She vividly remembers her first-grade teacher at Kashmere Elementary School, Ada Reynolds, who encouraged her inquisitive mind and her dramatic flair, and with whom Wiseman still stays in touch.

A graduate of an early drama program for children at the Alley Theatre and, later, a graduate of Kashmere High School's Class of 1968, she took first place in University Interscholastic League tests in dramatic interpretation and speech, learning Russian and Latin along the way.

"When I won a second place, I cried," Wiseman said. "My mother said `I'm glad you didn't win first. You need to learn defeat and how to take it gracefully.' "

Confusion about her part-Jewish surname helped her get through doors that would otherwise have been closed to her. In 1969, she became one of Rice University's first African-American students in its accelerated program for gifted and talented students.

"I remember my name being called -- `Wiseman? Wiseman?' I said, `I'm Wiseman.' And I remember how surprised they were. But I loved Rice."

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, an Afro-sporting Wiseman joined Sudan Arts Southwest, Houston's guerilla theater, with other African-American actors and street poets who used their words and songs to promote social change and to protest what they saw as the unfair treatment of black men.

"I wasn't angry," she said, adding that other members have since become a city photographer and a romance writer. "It was a lot of fun."

She also won a state conference while touring with a Fort Bend County theater company, Jack and Jill, which traveled throughout the southwest region of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Liberia was an excellent choice, she said, and she knew she would live there a long time, longer than her two-year assignment in 1973 with the Peace Corps.

"I've been very careful to sculpture my life," she said. "I decided several things early on ... that I would be a virgin until I married, that I was never going to be an unwed mother, that I wouldn't be kissed until I was 16. I kept all of them but the last one. And that proves that you don't tell people your dreams."

She learned to speak Kpgelle, the Liberian language of about 300 words, and taught English in one of the school's five classrooms filled with students of all ages, infants to aged senior citizens, then successfully petitioned for transfer to the National Liberian Culture Center.

She hosted a TV show there, Under the Palm Tree, while living in a house built inside a hill.

"Think Hobbit," she said, referring to one of the village settings for author J.R. Tolkien's action-fantasy books.

A friend of the Liberian president, Wiseman was put off by the president's son and refused to dance with him despite a $300 bet he had waged.

"I told him, `I'm from Texas,' and he retreated right away," she said.

She developed a cultural troupe of actors, dancers and musicians, but during a command performance at the home of a Liberian billionaire, a revolution began.

"I was thanking the distinguished guests when a guard took my microphone away and handed me down, off the stage. The president's son saw me and said, `You like her? You got to tame her -- she's from Texas,' " Wiseman said. "Then he kidnapped me, but I refused any food or water or Fanta -- a favorite drink there -- and they let me go."

While the war was going on, she continued her TV show from 6 to 10 each evening, and it became the second-place show in popularity, right behind the news. But then, the government forced her to host a special guest on her show, the now-deposed dictator Idi Amin of Libya, to whom Wiseman was to ask pre-submitted questions such as "Tell us your great vision."

"But I couldn't help myself. When he told me I looked like one of his wives. I said, `Which ones? The ones who are dead or the ones who have fled?,' " she said.

Somehow, she made it through the interview without getting arrested or murdered, "mostly because he was a guest in Liberia. It wasn't his country, so it would have been rude to his hosts to kill me."

While in West Africa, she recorded vocals with singer Mariam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Wiseman returned to the United States in 1979, retaining much of the African style she had picked up there. After a five-month vacation in New York and California, meeting Sarah Vaughn, the Temptations and Nina Simone, she started developing her one-woman show, singing periodically with the Houston Symphony Orchestra and creating many other shows she has recorded on CDs and tours in the United States, Europe and Africa, previewed on her Web site www.kijana.com/kijana.html.

In 1997, she won first place in the city of Houston Talent Competition and five of her one-act plays have won seven first-place awards in the past six years. In 2001 and 2002, The Griot was honored by The Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities, which named it the best college diversity program of the year. The same association also named Wiseman the 2002 Performing Artist of the Year.

On May 12, 2001, she got involved in another production, her wedding to Internal Revenue Service auditor Aundre Fusilier, "my good friend and partner," for whom she sang a song she wrote while meeting him at the alter.

As many of the leaders of Houston's African-American community watched, the couple recited vows they had jointly scripted and that included the phrase: "Together, we will embark on the greatest adventure two people can share. And it will be good."

Wiseman said that between her home life and her life on the road, her carefully planned life is turning out even better than the happily-ever-after fairytale she once dreamed of.

"If you breathe, you have talent," she said. "It's up to you to find the beauty inside yourself."

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