by Natalia Dutt, AmeriCorps Member
Ilene Evans is a member of a Thomas community who you rarely hear about. As one of the directors of Voices from the Earth she spends most of her time in the TEC researching people in history that she will portray through storytelling, or traveling around the state performing. As a long time teaching artist she believes strongly in “using performance as a way to connect the dots of a story.” Spending the first part of her professional life as a dancer in Chicago, Ilene views all types of art as a form of storytelling. She first found herself in Thomas to do a storytelling workshop with a professor from The Ohio State University, and the result she describes as, “replenishing, heartening, and nourishing” in parts of her that went hungry for a long time. Around the time of that first visit to West Virginia she was yearning to move away from the big city to a place she felt connected to emotionally. Luckily she found that in Thomas. She was drawn to the pride and the freeness she found in the locals. She has made it her goal to teach people how to relate their current life situation with the happenings of the past. To be fully conscious of the two being intertwined whether we realize it or not. Whether you are hearing a story about an infamous person in history or your grandma is telling you about childhood on her front porch, those stories help shape you as the person you will become. Ilene said that, “stories in a culture peel back life like an onion,” and it was her hope to peel back as many layers of West Virginia as possible.
She credits the song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” as one of the things that peaked her interest in Harriet Tubman, the woman she most regularly portrays in her storytelling. The power of story to affect change has fueled Ilene in her professional life. It has inspired her to teach workshops on how people can use the arts and performance to tell the stories of generations before as well as our own stories. It has encouraged her to delve deep in the history of strong women of color from West Virginia and to participate in the telling of their stories. She has focused on quite a few West Virginian women that she believes contributed to society in enough ways that it was vital to retell their history. Performing as women ranging from Bessie Coleman, an African American aviator, to Coralie Franklin Cook one of the first descendants of the Monticello slaves to graduate from college, she brings to life these women who had such a profound impact on society. Speaking with Ilene I have come to realize the importance of telling the stories of our past. It is vital to learn from our history and respect those who came before us in order to be a functioning society. She has made it her goal to shift the gate of perception of her audience in hopes they gain a better understanding about where they come from. Ilene credits the women that she has portrayed over her career in helping her expand her own understanding of the world. Through her storytelling she has traveled throughout the state researching and interviewing subjects that will get her an inside look into the history of the area.
Ilene’s own story far surpasses what I would have imagined. She has made it her life's mission to tell the in depth stories of people who changed history all while staying true to herself. She is bringing to life fierce women of color in a way that keeps you captivated and yearning to learn more. Hearing her speak with such volition and pride made me proud to be part of her community. Her encouragement to take a minute and hear the wisdom of those who came before us. Retell stories, or rather, re-listen to stories because you never know what you will get out of them the second time. Storytelling is an art form in which everyone takes part in some form or another. We here in Thomas are lucky enough to have a rich and colorful history, all we need to do is take the time to tell it.