The Fear of His Passion

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Al Bostick at his studio surrounded by his art.
Al Bostick is a self-described griot-an African storyteller and musician.

BY LINDA MILLER

One week, Al Bostick is dressed in colorful garb and enthralling children with stories about black cowboys or African princesses. The next week, he might be coaching an acting class or writing a children’s play or performing in community theater.

He is constantly reinventing himself.

That’s what struggling artists do.

While he could do without the struggling aspect of his chosen vocation, his life revolves around the arts. And children. He can’t imagine doing anything else. So he does it all.

“I do most all of the art forms,” he said.

It’s a philosophy he embraced when he decided to work in the arts some 30 years ago.

“Visual, music, dance or theater. All of the art forms feed one another as I do whatever I do.”

Bostick’s base is theater and storytelling with an emphasis on African and African-American history and culture, but he can build a presentation around any theme or topic. After graduating fromGramblingStateUniversityinLouisianawith a bachelor’s degree in theater, he worked toward his master’s in acting and directing at OU.

He quickly realized that bringing aspects of other arts into play would help him better portray characters on stage and enrich his storytelling. “That’s what led me to being a Renaissance artist,” he said.

His ability to bring characters and stories to life has made him a favorite among school children for years. Dressed in colorful and boldly patterned African clothes and jewelry, his appearance intrigues and delights. Plus it’s a great conversation starter.

“I tailor my dress to whatever I’m doing, but I do want them to recognize that this is an African-American connected to what they’re doing, and I make sure they understand that,” he said. “That’s another way to open dialogue to children and help them appreciate it.”

He captivates too as he sings and plays an African drum. And there may be dancing. What child wouldn’t like that?

“I discovered my calling a long time ago,” he said.

Bostick’s joy comes from working with children, particularly African-American children and those from other cultures. He used to say that African-American children had no fantasies — no princesses or kings in fairytale books.

“I started a quest looking for African princesses,” he said, and that led him to other stories. “I discovered African folklore … and it broadened itself that way for me,” he said.

Even as a junior high student inNew Orleans, Bostick loved the arts. His school gave away free tickets to the opera and he went every time. He remembers hearing Beverly Sills sing and seeing the first black production of “Carmen.”

“My mother and grandmother and Godmother and all of them said even as a young kid that I was probably going to be entertaining someone,” he said. “I was always kicking up my feet, twirling a stick or doing something artistic.”

When he went to college, he was set on being an English teacher. “I auditioned for my first play and fell in love with it. I had to change my major.”

Then he had to call his mother, who worried how he would make a living and where he would work.

“This is my passion and this is where I belong. I try not to worry about it. I think it will take care of itself.”

He feels even better when he gets letters from children and their parents. One parent thanked him for being part of a school program. “Isn’t it wonderful that children can know that stars dance and rivers sing,” she wrote. A woman now living inGermanysent him an email thanking him for teaching her to fly without strings. As a child she was shy and he helped her to see possibilities.

“That makes part of what I do worthwhile,” he said. “You don’t know how many children you touch, to what extent you touch them.”

Because Bostick embraces so many aspects of the arts, he has even more opportunities to make an impact on children as well as adults.

Being a man of many skills keeps him busy much of the time, but he would welcome more work.

“I always describe it as feast and famine,” he said. “Sometimes I’m very busy; other times it is a very slow process”

Now is a slow time. Often he’s booked months in advance but sometimes he needs the work immediately. February is a busy month with black history and then summer brings a library tour with storytelling and plays based on a summer reading theme.

To pay bills, manyOklahomaartists, whether they perform, paint or dance, take a 9 to 5 job, making their art part-time or an avocation. “But they’re no less passionate,” he said.

“This is what I do every day. I don’t have a 9 to 5. I’m constantly trying to invent and reinvent so I’m working in my art form every day. I think that’s what separates me from a lot of the artists I know.”

Oklahomaartists face other challenges, he said, including sometimes having to justify their prices. “As an artist, if I say I’m going to do this for 45 minutes and keep 100 to 150 people entertained, they say can I do that for $25? Sorry, I can’t.”

Bostick knows that’s just the way it is so he does all he can to enlighten the public and improve his skills. He constantly researches and participates in workshops and classes so he can bring that knowledge and entertainment to others.

“Yes, it’s a full-time job. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” he said. “That’s what keeps the drive going. I made that promise to myself early in my career. I want to make my living as an artist and I’m not going to do anything but that job. I stand on that platform and try to get other artists in the community to realize that this is how it works.”

He even carries such thinking to his acting students. “I always tell them to work on the fear of your passion so that your passion will be your work. Most of us fear that our passions are hobbies, that they’re not meant to bring us work to pay bills with. We simply have to do that thing because it’s our passion, part of what we do, but we don’t expect to be paid for that. Why can’t your passion be your work? A person who is a doctor, their passion is medicine. A lawyer’s passion is the law.”

Bostick is an outspoken advocate for the arts. He would love to see the arts back in schools, promising talent encouraged to stay in the state and development of a community theater row similar to what’s happening in other cities. And it would be wonderful see live theater and dance companies performing in Bricktown, he said.

Being a full-time artist inOklahomaisn’t easy, but he forges ahead. If performance bookings aren’t coming in, he may turn his attention to visual arts and his African and African-American paintings that are so bold and colorful.

“I was not born in Africa,Africawas born in me,” he said. “I have that philosophy. In order to be myself, I have to see myself. Since I see so few African and African-centric in books and works … I surround myself with those images and I create those images.”

He said he sold three pieces recently. “That’s how I paid the rent this month.”

A self-described master storyteller, griot and Renaissance man, Bostick is an artist in residence and on the touring roster for the Oklahoma Arts Council. He is also on the teaching roster for the Arts Council of Oklahoma City. His has received a Governor’s Arts Award for Arts in Education and a Commendation for Arts Excellence from the state. And he continues to direct and perform in local and regional theater.

Through Basically Bostick Projects, his performances teach, stimulate and entertain. On his schedule is a school conference inLouisianaon improvisation and role playing to help students feel more comfortable in speaking out against tobacco use. It’s different than most of his presentations, but it’s another way to help instill self-esteem and confidence in young people and to help them use their imaginations for skits or plays.

Bostick was born inNew Orleansand lived inWashington,D.C., until he was 12 when he moved back toLouisiana. He was surrounded by a houseful of grandparents, aunts and uncles and other elders in the community who had a hand in his upbringing. It was that whole village raising a child type environment, he said. And he was exposed to music, dance and theater.

College prepared him culturally to work on his master’s at OU, but he said he had “to fight tooth and nail to be a part of the theater there.” It was the early 1970s and he was the odd man out.

Once in a makeup class, the instructor told him to choose from two makeup shades — Negro No. 2 and Dark Egyptian. “I said I am neither.” The instructor asked, ”What should I do?”

“I said buy more makeup. They didn’t have very many African-Americans in theater there.”

OU learned from him, just as he learned from the school. “I guess it helped them realize too that you’re sort of a teacher as well as a student. If I’m on stage with you, you can’t put me under green light. I turn gray.”

Bostick embraces all of the experiences of his career and what led him to this point in his life. Experience is the best teacher in the world because it makes you stronger, he said. He uses those experiences today in his acting classes. ”I tell people I’m the best kept secret inOklahoma City. I offer them something a little different, I think, in terms of what I do.”

That could be said for everything he does.

To call him a man of many talents is a bit of a cliché, but with Bostick, the statement rings true. Just ask any child who has seen him perform and left knowing that stars dance and rivers sing and the world is full of possibilities.

“I cannot see myself doing anything else even as frustrating as it sometimes gets.”

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