There are 104 children standing on risers, curved around a choir director, their arms raised in joy as they sing. Their faces reflect a broad spectrum of identities—skin color, gender expression, financial security—each beaming with confidence, and pride. Their peers are on their way to fill the auditorium of Kentridge High School. The students all wear matching shirts that say “Be the Generation,” on the front, the core of the message they hope to share at this rally celebrating the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On the back of each shirt is a personalized message: “I march for…” and each teen has written in a cause that motivates them, including “climate action,” “racial equality,” “women’s rights,” and more.
This rally reflects the fourth annual Rising Star Project: MLK Residency and the second collaboration between all four high schools in the Kent School District – Kentridge, Kent Meridian, Kentlake, and Kentwood. In November of 2019, a small group of teens from these four schools began meeting with support from their teachers and the education and artistic staff at The 5th Avenue Theatre to develop a script that would call their peers to take action and make the world a better, kinder, more welcoming place. As the weeks passed, they grew in number and met to rehearse in the evenings and on the weekends, creating a beautiful and heartfelt celebration of hope and perseverance laced with gospel music, quotes from Dr. King, and personal stories. And now, a few days before the Dr. King holiday, they are taking the show on the road, so to speak, performing and inspiring the entire student bodies at all four high schools, as well as a performance for their parents and families of the participating kids, as well as the greater community of Kent.
“Nnnno joy,” 5th Avenue Theatre Director of Education and Engagement Orlando Morales emphasizes in a sing-song voice. “Make that Nnnnn sound really sharp and precise. Let’s all try it together.” And then they are all singing—a wall of sound, clear as a bell. “There we go,” he says as he calls them to a stop. “That’s really good. Another way to think about it is if you were walking to someone and you really needed them to hear and understand what you were trying to say, how would you emphasize your words? That’s what we need to do here.”
They gather for a group photo, smiling and making silly faces before they take their places as the students of Kentridge pour into the room, filling the bleachers from the back wall down to the gym floor. The choir is singing “No Joy, No Strength” as they step back and forth, clapping and cheering. The lights drop and they are lit from beneath, casting swaying shadows on the arrangement of flats. To the right, a projection on a screen is lit with an image of Dr. King with a quote: “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundation of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
The song ends and there is scattered applause. It’s 8:15 in the morning, and the student body needs a little warming up to really feel this message. But these kids are bringing it in spades. They call on their peers to rise as a girl sings a soulful rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice.” A speaker quotes the words of Dr. King to call their peers to the point of their rally: “The battle is in our hands. The road ahead is not a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily to quick solutions, but we must keep going.”
Then another speaker recites an impassioned sermon of Dr. King’s. As she speaks, the choir gathered behind her chimes in with enthusiasm as she builds to a powerful crescendo. “Keep moving, for it may well be that the greatest song has not yet been sung. The greatest book has not been written. The highest mountain has not been climbed. This is your challenge! Reach out and grab it… If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means, keep moving.” And then a step team calls the attention to the center of the room, and the auditorium is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The rest of the rally flows effortlessly from stirring song to impassioned rhetoric. In the end, the students break the fourth wall, inviting the kids in the bleachers to join them on the auditorium floor in peaceful protest, standing for a cause that inspires them.
The movement as the teens pour out of the bleachers and onto the floor is powerful. They stand with their fists in the air as the step team stomps and claps and chants “Now it’s our turn.” The auditorium lights snap back on and the spell is broken. And yet, something lingers. There is an energy as the students embrace and celebrate and flow out of the auditorium and off to class. The next wave of students is due to arrive any minute.
Who can say if the students of the school district will march for change or take up a cause that matters to them? But one thing is clear. For the duration of the rally, hope burns brighter, and that carries the students of Kentridge off to their next class. It is the same at each of the four schools where these students perform for thousands of their peers, inviting them to hope and work for a brighter future. And the students who put this performance together, who spoke with passion and honesty, and who sang from the depths of their souls, are the leaders of tomorrow. And they are well on their way to securing a better future for all of us.
Rising Star Project is made possible by a generous grant from The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation with additional support from Potelco, Inc., Susie and Phil Stoller, The Sabrina Roberts Memorial Fund, Rex and Angela Bates, Jolene McCaw Family Foundation, The Herman and Faye Sarkowsky Charitable Foundation, Freestone Capital Management, Brad and Kathy Smith, GM Nameplate, Jean K. Lafromboise Foundation, RealNetworks Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Rotary Service Foundation, and Promotion Arts (in-kind).
To find out how you can support all of The 5th‘s education and engagement programs, including Rising Star Project, click here.