Living the dream
By Amy Elliott + Photo by Kate Engeriser
“Everybody knows about these people,” the boy mutters. “It’s been drummed into their heads about 15,000 times.”
He is a young student with a simple assignment: write a two-page essay about an African-American hero. But he is plagued by a classical academic anxiety: hasn’t it all been said before? Crushed by the pressure of history against his attempts to think and work creatively, he resigns and hangs his head.
And then he is visited by the spectre of Harriet Tubman leading a chorus of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
The boy’s encounter with the legendary abolitionist is only the first in a long parade of dreamers, leaders, thinkers and changers. This is We Are The Dream, the story of history revisited and myths refreshed.
The performance is the work of the African-American Children’s Theater (AACT), a nonprofit organization that has been providing arts education and mounting productions in the community since 1989. This is the first year that AACT has been able to expand its activities to include a resident company of eight to fourteen-year-old actors with exceptional talent, drive and commitment. The company members focus on perfecting their stagecraft in major collaborative roles both on and off the stage.
For We Are The Dream, the small company researched, wrote and directed the play together.
“I learned about people I never heard of before,” says resident Jakayla Dills. “Everybody knows about Martin Luther King, but I never learned anything about Barbara Jordan.” Jakayla plays Jordan, a former Texas state senator and the first southern black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Jakayla also appears as writer and civil rights activist Mary Church, one of the first black women to earn a college degree. When she is not in front of the audience, she is behind the scenes, mastering the skills of stage manager. Mahdi Gransbury, who stars as the plagued schoolboy, doubles as the assistant director for the play.
“We work within our group,” says Constance Clark, founder and executive director of AACT, who is helping Mahdi learn about technical theater in hopes that he will be able to take over light, sound and stage design soon. “Ultimately,” she says, “he plans to take over everything.” Mahdi smirks and deviously laces his fingers.
AACT’s team spirit befits the group’s goals, which extend far beyond the desire to put on a good show. Theater is a discipline; it enhances confidence, sharpens listening skills, fosters active participation and encourages healthy expression. Before each rehearsal, the kids spend some time talking to each other, sharing their ideas and anxieties. Then they channel their energy into their craft.
“Art expresses all your feelings,” says resident Ashante Alfred. “If you’re having a bad day, it just makes you feel happier.”
“Instead of putting ‘Kendra’ in the character box, I have to put Harriet Tubman or Spencer Coggs or Gwen Moore in the character box,” she says. “I learn how to put inspiration into that character box.”
The more they learn, the more they seem to want to learn. These are children of extraordinary ambition. Kendra wants to move to California after college and start her own teaching studio; Jakayla wants to be a pediatrician; Lisha Harris looks forward to a professional singing career and Salik Brown announces a comprehensive plan to become a preacher/lawyer/pilot/singer/songwriter/the next Thurgood Marshall.
AACT plans to incorporate more original, student-developed productions in the future. They may already have a candidate for next winter; in the middle of our meeting, Mahdi jumped up, declared that he and Salik had “merged companies” and detailed a gumshoe comedy they had brainstormed together. After working on superficial cases like “where’s my other sock” and “who took the cake,” Langston and Zora – a brother-sister amateur-detective team – set to work on the case of their elderly neighbor’s disappearance.
“In the end,” says Mahdi, “they learn about the importance of community.”
It is a lesson that AACT has taught him well. VS
In addition to showings in area schools, We Are The Dream will be performed for the public on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. at the Milwaukee Education Center in the Rosa Parks Auditorium at 1615 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in Milwaukee. Tickets are $7. More information at www.aact.us or call 414-461-5771.