Recently, storyteller Len Cabral was cleaning his office. A collector as much as a teller of stories, histories and rich cross-cultural experiences, one can only imagine what treasures such a space might hold, ready to be uncovered at any moment.
In this particular moment, Len recalls, two letters came tumbling out from a portfolio. They were both from the late Senator Claiborne Pell, the advocate of education and arts whose legacy is honored each year by Trinity Repertory Company. Fitting, since Len was recently named one of the two Rhode Island Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts recipients to be feted at the 2016 gala, held this month in Newport. Len had met Pell on two occasions: once when Len received the Jefferson Award, an award honoring citizenship, and again when he emceed an event in honor of the Senator’s retirement.
“I’m honored to receive the award,” Len says. “[Senator Pell] was a good man, and I was glad that he was from Rhode Island. He was someone I could brag about when I traveled around the country.”
It’s safe to say that many Rhode Islanders feel the same way about Len. He’s a recognizable figure in the Providence arts scene – his decades-long storytelling career has gone hand in hand with his work for the Providence Inner City Arts Council (PICA), a non-profit multi-cultural community organization he founded in 1971. Through PICA, the city has enjoyed festivals like the Florentine Faire, the Jazz City series, two years of programming at the now-shuttered Roots Cultural Center downtown and other projects that have borne Len’s stamp.
“It feeds my soul, on a personal level,” Len says when asked about what makes the arts so important. And what about the arts in Providence and in Rhode Island, the place he calls home? “There’s so much diversity in Rhode Island. It should be highlighted, but we don’t talk about it,” he says.
For Len, advocating for the arts – for the value of showcasing and reveling in the human experience in all its facets – is advocating for diversity in the arts. An African-American whose own cultural heritage reaches back on both sides to the Cape Verdean islands, this is a deeply felt responsibility.
“It’s discouraging to see the lack of diversity in Rhode Island in the arts, in education and in business. This is my home,” he says. “You walk through downtown, and you’re like, where are the people of color? Where are the black professionals? Where are the black artists? It’s not inviting. The places I go into, it’s [often] just me and a cup of coffee.”
An integral part of changing that, Len says, is to actively encourage the celebration of our differences. He feels that it’s our duty to expose our young people to as many experiences and stories as we can find – to show them that other types of people, and that other paths, exist apart from the majority. From a young age, he realized the importance of storytelling in this mission – he found that he was most interested in classes where teachers approached education with a storytelling bent. He would go on to reflect that philosophy in his own teaching, whether with PICA, throughout the state in his own performances, or in his work as an early childhood educator (“On a wing, I took this job at a daycare center, and I was in charge of 15 five-year-olds. That’ll make you a storyteller”).
With a resonant voice, an open, expressive face that’s easy to break into a warm smile, you can see that Len makes the ideal teacher. To see him on stage is to become enraptured with whatever story he’s spinning – he prefers folklore, fairytales, myths and the like. It seems impossible to not connect. And that’s what he’s hoping for, he says. That despite the disconnect of the modern world, and despite the bubbles that we impose upon ourselves, that we’ll be able to learn how to listen – and that we’ll all be better for it.
“We’re all connected through these stories. People have been telling them since the beginning of time. Before people knew how to write, they told stories,” he says. “Many of the themes in the stories are share, be kind, take care of the environment, take care of each other, be helpful, don’t be greedy. Don’t be a bully. All these things are right there in folklore from years gone by. I feel a lot of the answers to today’s problems are in these folktales that people have been telling since the beginning of time.”