On a Thursday afternoon, over 100 teens gathered in the theater of Kentridge High School. Sitting in clusters throughout the audience seats, they chatted amongst themselves, occasionally rowdy, occasionally subdued. A well-loved baby grand piano sat onstage with a few adults checking in with each other, reviewing documents, watching the time on watches and phones and keeping their eyes on the door as stragglers continued to enter.
The gathering of young people represented the full spectrum of the student body with emissaries from A.S.B. (Associated Student Body), G.S.A. (Gender and Sexuality Alliance), L.E.A.P. (Latino/a Educational Achievement Project), M.S.A. (Muslim Student Association), Men on the Move (for young men of color), Y.E.L.L. (Young Educated Ladies Leading for young women of color), and more in attendance. Adding to the excitement to the buzz in the room were students from Kent Meridian High School making their way in. This was a gathering of students participating in a rally in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in January—one of the first meetings where the kids were getting on their feet, leaving the brainstorming stages behind them.
Kentridge High School drama teacher Jennifer Grajewski and Kent Meridian High School choir director Heath Thompson called the room to order. The two schools boast incredibly diverse and passionate student bodies—students who in a tense political environment are seeking to celebrate Dr. King’s values including tolerance, inclusivity, love and acceptance. Both schools also have enjoyed long-standing collaborations with The 5th Avenue Theatre in support of their music and theater programs. This year, the two high schools—which are located just five miles apart—opted to collaborate not only with The 5th, but with each other to create a program that would unify not only their student bodies but their communities as well.
Following a session in which the students brainstormed the impact and message they wanted their combined rally to have, the teachers and The 5th Avenue’s Director of Education and Community Engagement Orlando Morales sat down to create a framework for the rally. First, they wondered whether they could create something compelling enough to get kids to look up from their phones. And from that rose the question: what would it look like if Dr. King had a smartphone? And from there: what does activism for teens look like in the digital age? Are our phones a hindrance or a help? Can we choose to make the world a better place?
Those themes weave their way throughout the new script. Also woven through the script is the music that Dr. King held so dear—gospel music—and that was what the day’s gathering would be about. Orlando spoke to the teens about the significance that churches played in the Civil Rights Movement as grassroots organizers, and about the power of gospel music. Orlando then introduced them to actress, teaching artist, and 5th Avenue Theatre Subscriber Choice Award winner Shaunyce Omar. Shaunyce spoke about what gospel music had meant to her growing up. Her church choir was her introduction to singing, a passion and skill around which she has built an incredible career.
And then it was time for the students to get on their feet. Some had never sung before in their lives. Some had only sung in the shower. Some had a lot of experience. “Can I get all the girls and female identifying students who sing soprano or only feel comfortable singing melody to gather over here stage right?” Orlando called. Next, he invited the altos. Next the young men and male-identifying students who were tenors or felt comfortable singing melody. And finally the basses. The students were arrayed onstage around the piano.
What happened next was… well… miraculous. In the space of an hour, the students had not only learned to sing melody and harmony, but they learned an entire song that they sang proudly at the top of their lungs as they swayed, danced and clapped. Orlando accompanied them on piano, taught them the lyrics and showed them where to put their emphasis. Shaunyce directed them, keyed them into pronunciation and filled them with spirit and excitement.
By the end of the rehearsal, the students were joyful, dancing, laughing. “I’m looking for a miracle!” they sang. “I expect the impossible. I feel the intangible. I see the invisible.” There was an energy that was tangible from the back row. “Just believe and receive it! Love will perform it today!” they sang. The high school theater was crackling with energy. “The sky is the limit to what I can have!” they called. And as they sang it, it felt true. The sky was indeed the limit.
As the hour drew to an end, the energy was mixed. It was disappointing to stop. But there was also a shared excitement at what they had accomplished in such a short time, how remarkable they had sounded so quickly and how they now shared this special experience with others they might otherwise never even have said “hello” to. And that truly brings the whole experience back to the message of Dr. King: that we cannot succeed, that we cannot push forward for progress unless we stand together, united.
Kentridge High School and Kent Meridian High School’s rallies will take place on Friday, January 11 with a special combined community performance at Kentridge High School in the evening.
The combined classroom residency with Kentridge and Kent Meridian High Schools are part of The 5th’s Rising Star Project this year. The 5th Avenue Theatre is grateful to all of the wonderful sponsors that support our youth education programs, including the following major donors to this Rising Star Project program: The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation, The Boeing Company, and RealNetworks Foundation. To learn more about other youth education programs for schools, click here.