Did Martin Luther King, Jr. ever dream that in Atlanta at the Junior Theater Festival, on his celebratory weekend in 2011, more than 2,000 kids from around the United States, ages 7 to 15, would be gathered from 54 separate schools from across the U.S. with a make-up of white, Latin, black, Asian and Middle Eastern children, all celebrating and performing together in the most collegial, joyful, loving atmosphere!?
I hope he was watching from the beyond -- this was the dream.
Kids, teachers, colleagues, parents, all wallowing in the joy of this remarkable collaboration and perceived it for what it was, namely, viz: a microcosm of a utopian society in which there is no prejudice or discrimination, and where the collective talent of your group (identified not by your skin color or your religious beliefs but by the show you're performing or the color of the t-shirt you're wearing) ultimately determines your standing at the end of the festival and how the adjudicators perceive you. The reason for wearing t-shirts only, in color pods, is specifically so that everyone is homogenized. Behind every t-shirt on the back it said "I Have a Dream." These t-shirts leveled the playing field and when one color pod performed, the others cheered them on.
The concept of Schadenfreude does not exist in the innocent world of these kids. Individuals perform as part of something bigger than themselves as a group and not just to show off. They perform and get feed back from qualified professionals that are "pros" in the business from NY and elsewhere. They receive seminars that enhance their acting skills, their improv, their movement, their production and their projection from the stage. Simultaneously their teachers are getting seminars on music producing, music and theater, costume design, costumes "on the cheap," tips on lighting, movement and choreography. All helping to support the children, honing everyone's skills, doing hard work, all of which is designed to realize what each of their respective dreams may be.
No one talked down to these kids. No one pontificates or lectures. This is all experiential learning with involvement and participation and sharing including all the teachers having to learn a production number and perform for the children at the end of the weekend as well (fair is fair!)
Highlights of the event included Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatricals. Dazzling the audience with the boo boos, the mistakes, the things they never saw that preceded development of Beauty and the Beast, Aida, The Lion King, Tarzan and Mary Poppins. He explained how the elements of the show are put together, the trial, the error, the willingness to confront mistakes... and start again.
He then took Q & A from the audience mostly predictable questions and answers and then suddenly, the very last question came from a young man, who was sort of a stocky version of a Justin Bieberesque young fella. The unflappable, extraordinarily sophisticated and cosmopolitan Tom, who is notoriously cool under fire, a multi-dexterous with the number of shows, he can simultaneous oversee globally, was onstage and confronted with a question from a child which resonated deeply with him. The questions was, "what did you do about bullies Mr. Schumacher and what do we all do with bullies and how do we deal with them?" Tom hesitated, he swallowed, gained his composure, I think he held back a tear, (but I saw a glisten in the eye) proustian memories flowing through his mind, he gave a prudent, nurturing, and sensible pragmatic explanation of bullies: "Scared people. People, who will run when you turn on them, people who will back down if you retort. You have allies because you're in theatre, you have allies because you're in a group, you need not worry about having to take on the bully alone, you have your friends, cast, buddies, all supporting you, at your back holding the bully at bay. Disregard him and disrespect him, because he isn't worthy of your time, your attention, your regard. He can't hurt you because if you don't respect him, he can't hurt you. You don't care about him." The audience cheered. Tom declared, "Don't you let anyone get in the way of your dreams, or put you down. Feel sorry for that bully, he's too scared to follow his dream. He'll never be more than he is until he has the courage to do what you're doing."
As though this weren't enough for the children, Jeanine Tesori spoke. This is a woman who was a child prodigy and was playing the piano at age 3. Was born with perfect pitch but who broke her butt working hard to learn a craft. A woman who was a musician when women were not accepted in an orchestra pit. A woman who was a musician who was not generally permitted to be given a conductor's baton. A woman who wrote Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek and Caroline or Change, with the great Tony Kushner. And she did it. She did it through hard work, she conducted rehearsals, she taught the orchestra, she was a school teacher and she taught music in schools, she wrote and edited music books and she also has a 13-year-old daughter so she can relate to the kids she was speaking to and how she interacts with her daughter. (Her daughter told her to be "cool.")
A woman behind me said, "I've never been so proud to be a woman, I'm so glad my daughter is here to see that this is another barrier that's been broken." I wondered if Dr. King dreamt this when he had his dream.
The other featured speaker was Bryan-Michael Cox, an African American man from Houston, TX. Loved musical theatre and music and had a dream. His dream was he wanted to be (and he said this out loud at his 5th grade graduation) "A combination of Quincy Jones and Babyface when I grow up." His teacher, (a monument to insensitivity and negativity) said, "I really wouldn't aspire to the unrealistic because you will most likely be disappointed." Bryan forged ahead.
At 16 years old, he decided opportunities in Houston were not enough. "I'm going to go to Atlanta. It's the next happening place." He took 3 jobs, but he said "I may need you mom to help me, even though I know it's tight for you." And she did and he worked at every job imaginable, multiple jobs at the same time to keep going. Apprenticing in the recording studio and working hard playing organ at a funeral parlor and doing anything he could near the field of music to learn more. He had sung "On the Street Where You Live" in his High School production of My Fair Lady, so he knew the world he was speaking to, world of young kids who love theatre. He was one of those kids. No bully got to him, no teacher stopped him, and he made it clear that nothing was going to stop him. He worked hard. Late in the studio, he learned the technique of the recording board and when New York City called and they said, "Could someone fix some material and send it back to NYC because Usher isn't happy with it," there was no one else left in the studio (they had split for the evening) Bryan-Michael Cox, became the co-composer and producer of Usher, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige. He mentored and produced a young man the children might have heard of named Justin Bieber. (Justin's name produced screams and pandemonium.) Bryan-Michael Cox has been on the Top 100 charts for 500 weeks plus! That's 10 years of being in the Top 100, out of his creativity, imagination and inventiveness. He is like Jeanine, like Tom, people who believe in themselves, who identify their limitations, people who persevere in what they excel in and good at, people who are relentless and tenacious and work hard and learn their craft. The message was loud and clear, three different sources: a white, aspiring actor from California who realized once he was on the stage, he just wasn't good enough; a woman who was told "this isn't the world for you lady," and who made it with hit shows; a black kid from Houston, whose own teacher was unsupportive about his dream, probably thinking she was saving him from pain and disappointment.
They all have in common, tenacity, the willingness to have doors slammed in their faces, the knowing that nothing comes easy, even with talent and they stood before thousands of kids and parents and teachers and they spoke of their dreams and how they made them come true. They spoke with honesty, integrity and authenticity. They were the real thing. They all have in common, fire and passion in the core of their belly, the same passion, the same kind of dream as Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a most wonderful event to witness because without a dream, where would there be an Apple, a Google, a Facebook, a Twitter. The dream is the essence of America, the dream is about possibility, and the dream is to maximize our potential against all obstacles.
Thank you Dr. King. You had your dream, we took the liberty of extending it this past weekend, your weekend, in your town, in Atlanta, but I think you'd be very proud. I was. Your legacy lives on bigger and better than ever.