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Plot Points

The storied career of Temujin Ekunfeo

"I was driving on the King's Road with my cart and horse …" 

So begins another tale, told by the beaming black man on the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival's Rose Stage. The audience smiles. 

Temujin Ekunfeo stands easily before them, facing rows of wooden benches, families with children, people stepping lightly on ground still wet from last night's late-summer showers. Ekunfeo is charming, playing off the audience, telling outrageous tales. 

"Yes, I have no shame whatsoever," he says seriously, then adds his trademark booming laugh. "That's why I tell stories."

His audience is largely dressed in civvies -- T-shirts, blue jeans, de rigueur Steeler gear -- though some are decked out in period togs, from leather vests to multi-colored kilts to feathered caps. The Pittsburgh-born-and-bred Ekunfeo, meanwhile, is dressed in his usual attire: traditional flowing robes, beads and headgear. Yet he seems as much a part of the surroundings as the nearby jousting knights. 

And that may be the real story here. Ekunfeo, a trained Yoruba priest, is playing the part of a West African prince, traveling through Renaissance Europe. 

At first, people look at him, shake their heads, and say, "It's a Renaissance festival. What are you doing here?"

"Aha," Ekunfeo answers. "A teachable moment. So I tell them" -- narrating tales of the glories of the Renaissance, and of the African and Middle Eastern knowledge that infused it. 

"Were it not for the Moors in Spain," Ekunfeo says, "and the Islamic and Hebraic influence in Italy, there would not have been a Renaissance.

"In any generation," he adds, "to have a global perspective is not merely important. It's vital."

To the wide-eyed responses, he ticks off the gifts that helped recreate Europe: Moorish art, architecture and algebra; and the Jewish penchant for complex textual study. "Most people," he adds, "most educated people, know nothing of that."

The Moors were all the rage in many Renaissance courts: Their skill in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, even gastronomy brought them welcome and renown. Along with the spice and silk trade came a free flow of information -- an explosion, really, that was vital in allowing Europe to shake off the Dark Ages. 

"Someone should represent that," Ekunfeo thought to himself a couple of decades ago. "Why not me?"

Ekunfeo has been marked as a gifted storyteller since the age of 10, when the other kids on the playground began demanding that he tell them stories. Even his name tells a tale. 

Born John Henry Reynolds, Ekunfeo discovered at age 6 that he carried the name of the family that once owned his great-grandparents. 

"It upset me terribly," he recalls. "You own furniture. You own pets. You don't own people." In high school, he decided to change his name, and by age 24 he was employing skills learned as a Pitt-trained anthropologist to trace his roots back to West Africa, to Yoruba culture. That's how he became Temujin Ekunfeo. (Temujin translates as "Iron Man"; Ekunfeo as "Beloved of the Leopard.") 

"I count myself very fortunate," he says. "Most African Americans have no idea where they're from."

He now works up to 200 days a year, taking a repertoire of some 300 stories from Key West to San Francisco, Halifax to Phoenix. He's mastered eight languages, and often does all-Español shows in the Southwest.

Like any good jazz artist, "I steadfastly bend the story to suit myself at that moment," Ekunfeo says. "And to suit the audience. I found very early that if my heart's in it, I won't tell any story the same way twice. It's the difference between apples and apple jelly: One is fresh and alive, the other is pre-cooked and preserved.

"I decide what I'm going to do when I'm in front of the audience," he adds. "I trust my intuition."

Back on stage at the Renaissance Festival, he decides to give it up for the kids. Performing in various voices and characters -- his duck imitation is a particular gem, drawing giggles from pre-teens -- he tells a prolix variation on the ugly-duckling theme, with the requisite happy ending. 

"Remember," he reminds the enraptured youngsters: "Beauty is not on the outside. Beauty is on the inside."

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