Tea for Brew

Denver storyteller Skywalker Payne has a good explanation for her flighty moniker, which she says is her legal name: She's firmly disconnected from the ground and proud of it. "I've been a professional gypsy most of my life," Payne declares with a worldly smile that practically covers her thin, well-traveled face. "I was conceived in Reno and moved to Vegas before I was even born." After that, she never stopped moving, roaming from place to place, first with her Air Force family and later as an itinerant dancer and poet. Inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, which calls meditation a sky-like state of mind, she sees herself following in the footsteps of the Dakinis, or skywalkers, female spiritual beings in Tibetan lore.

But she's lit here longer than in most places, for the most mundane and sweetest of reasons: "Maybe because I'm getting old," she says. "Or not having money, or being in love." And Skywalker, who in 1998 earned a contract degree in storytelling from Metropolitan State College of Denver, is also learning to ply her new trade. Like any good gypsy worth her salt, she's got to be concerned with how to make a buck. That hasn't been easy. "At Metro, nobody said to me, 'Now, Skywalker, you go take some business-management classes,'" she laments. "Some people want me for nothing," she adds, noting that it's hard to make a living out of leading a creative life, especially when the public has an uncertain appreciation for the hard work she applies to her craft. In addition to her storytelling, she now holds down a full-time job with Community Housing Services. Inc., a nonprofit organization offering information for low-income and homeless families.

So it was a fortuitous day when she wandered into Somalian tea merchant Omar Abdulkadir's Gemini Tea Emporium, itself a regional rarity. Stocked ceiling to floor in one corner with canisters of teas from around the world that Abdulkadir sells both wholesale and over the counter, the relaxed Five Points tearoom offers a kinder, gentler alternative to coffeehouse culture. It's one of those places where a person could easily while away an afternoon in half-lit tranquility, sunk into a velvety sofa with glowing candles, a good book and a slowly steeping pot of exotic brew. Like fine wines, aged cheese, smelly cigars and other acquired tastes, tea takes time. As do stories.

Enter Skywalker, who took one look around the place and said, "This is perfect for storytelling." Apparently, it was a good call: An employee invited her to perform there, saying that Gemini was already looking for storytellers, something Abdulkadir had grown up with in Mogadishu but saw far too little of in Colorado. After Skywalker's first performance, a pre-Halloween ghost-story session that drew a full house, she returned in November to host events in conjunction with National Storytelling Week. Since January, Skywalker has begun telling twice a month in changing programs on Saturday nights. This week she'll be in a romantic mood, offering stories for lovers taken -- as most of her repertoire is -- from the canons of folk tales, mythology and, perhaps, personal experience.

In Gemini, Skywalker found a venue where she could call her own shots. "I think tea mellows people out," Skywalker says. "People come here to hear stories. They listen." Her audiences vary from week to week in terms of size and diversity, but she says it's the first place she's performed where the audiences can be predominantly African-American. And after watching the discrepancies between the healthy economy reported by the media and the poverty-driven helplessness of the clients she encounters at her job, she's hoping to extract a goodwill message from her repertoire as well. "In the back of my mind, I'm trying to figure out how to take stories and use them as a bridge," she says. "I'm trying to find a way to tell stories that will reach people."

The easiest audience to reach may be children. "Adults can pay, but telling to children is like the sun shining." Young people are more resilient and imaginative listeners, Skywalker finds. "Children handle death in stories very well," she notes by way of explanation. "Kids wouldn't blink an eye. They know it's a story." And following in-school gigs, she's also seen how stories generate social interaction among youngsters. "Usually, when they go out on the playground, they play with the toys, but after a storytelling, they go out and play with each other, making up their own stories." In certain instances, she's even noticed an unexpected audience -- pre-adolescent black boys -- coming back, intrigued and fascinated, asking for more stories. She attributes their heightened interest simply to "a magic that happens."

"I have a saying: 'Storytelling art creates rapturous enlightening delight' -- that spells 'sacred.'" For her, it's nothing tangible enough to describe in plainer terms.

Of course, it still takes more than pure magic to live well. So even though it's not the best money in the world, Skywalker keeps a tip jar at Gemini when she performs, and she even tells a story to remind audiences to leave something in it on the way out. It has to do with a play she once saw, in which a man offers a street beggar a handout -- but only if the panhandler can tell a good story. "If I were a singer in a nightclub, I'd probably put out a champagne glass," Skywalker says. "But I'm in a teahouse, so I use a teapot."

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd

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