LONG BEACH - For years, theater producer and director Gary DeWitt-Marshall had wanted to produce storyteller Leslie Perry's work.
DeWitt-Marshall, meanwhile, had seen Perry portray Frederick Douglass and wanted to work with the veteran performer.
However, when DeWitt-Marshall called Perry last summer, he learned Perry was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease and was no longer performing.
But the story didn't end there. In fact, it is where this story began.
DeWitt-Marshall said rather than give up on the idea of working with Perry, "I said, `Hey, let me see what's in your treasure trove of work."'
A performer and storyteller for more than 30 years in the style of a West African griot, a keeper of tales and wisdom in the oral tradition, Perry has a deep well of material to choose from. In celebration of Black History Month, two of his one-act plays, "The Muse" and "The History Man," will be performed Sunday and the following two weekends in Long Beach at the Manazar Gamboa Community Theater, 1323 Gundry Ave.
DeWitt-Marshall compared Perry to famed black playwright August Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for drama. He said Perry's stories are notable for the "depth and simplicity" and "a core of humanity."
Although Perry has staged readings of the plays in the past, this will be the first time they have been seen in a full stage production.
DeWitt-Marshall said in part because of Perry's failing health, he rushed these productions to the top of his list.
He also looks forward to producing the plays at the new Gamboa stage.
"One-acts are perfect for that theater," DeWitt-Marshall said. "It's what I call boutique theater. It will be an intimate experience."
Perry said he "fell into (storytelling) by accident" in 1975, when he was asked to perform for kids at a mall. Until then, he had been a traditional stage actor.
"When I saw (children's ) eyes open up, I realized I'm on to something," Perry said.
The two plays come out of Perry's performances over the years. "The Muse" is a funny and literate tale of a man who seeks to break his writing block by summoning an ancient muse for inspiration. "The History Man" tells of an actor whose shows depicting a black historical figure are faltering until he meets a reporter who helps him.
"`The History Man' really is me," Perry said. "It's about an old man trying to keep black history alive."
Perry said the story evolved out of a one-man Frederick Douglass and minstrel show he used to perform, and then grew to include other famous characters from black history.
It is a subject that is close to Perry's heart. He said he is alarmed at what he sees as a drop in awareness about black history.
"I've been thinking about what's happened to black history," Perry said, noting that work for black storytellers has dropped off, even in February, which was the busy season.
"Part of it is the economy and part is the interest of knowing the history of black folks is not as great as it used to be, and how do you reignite that?" Perry said. "It was burning inside of me to say something."