When Atlanta poet Theresa Davis walked into the Joseph B. Whitehead Memorial Boys & Girls Club on Lakewood Avenue to teach a six-week theater workshop in the fall of 2018, she had no idea a mutiny was in the works.
A retired middle school teacher and teaching artist for the Alliance Theatre, she had seen her share of adolescent angst, but this time was different. She was under the impression the middle-grade students wanted her to be there, but that was far from true.
Upon her arrival, the club director told her the students consciously planned not to participate in hopes that she wouldn’t come back. They were skeptical about what a professional artist could offer them, and Davis knew she had to sell them on the idea.
After two apathetic sessions, Davis finally told them, “I get paid to be here whether we do anything or not, so tell me what you want to get out of this experience.”
The students huddled. After negotiating among themselves, they told her they wanted to write a song and shoot a music video. Whitehead, like most Boys & Girls Clubs in Atlanta, has recording equipment, so making their dream a reality wasn't so far-fetched.
Davis led the students through some writing exercises and combined their poems into a song. The result was a catchy tune called “Everyday.” Featuring a variety of kids’ voices, the song reflects on a day-in-the life of being in middle school, from waking up in the morning to being grateful the household bills are paid. Just shy of two minutes, the video shows the middle school students striking poses, swinging and generally embracing a sunny day on the playground.
“Watching their faces when their video was playing, knowing that they have a finished product, that they were proud of themselves, I was in tears, the instructors were in tears,” said Davis. “We forget the pressure, stress and anxiety we had in middle school. Middle school is take-no-prisoners. For them to be a part of something that instills self-pride and just be in the moment is the bomb.”
The video vividly captures those fleeting moments of middle school-aged innocence, and its creation was totally driven by the kids. It was produced in a collaboration between the Alliance Theatre and Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta as a part of a program called Youth Arts Initiative (YAI). The program is sponsored by the Wallace Foundation, a national organization started by the founders of Reader's Digest that fosters education and arts appreciation among youth from low-income neighborhoods.
YAI perfectly aligns with the goals of Boys & Girls Clubs, said Adrianne Penner, senior director of programs.
“We know the value and impact of arts, especially in youth,” she said. “Art is an important pipeline for young people to understand their own creativity, voice, style of expression and knowledge of self.”
Every semester, the Alliance Theatre embeds playwrights and teaching artists like Davis at select area Boys & Girls Clubs to help create a performance piece with teens and tweens. Instructors usually start by introducing a piece of text relevant to the kids’ lives. Last semester it was “Ghost,” a young adult novel by Jason Reynolds about a boy trying to make the track team at his elite middle school.
Using those same themes, the students create an original performance piece. Over the course of six weeks, they are introduced to dancers, composers, musicians, choreographers and other guest artists that give them ideas about how to develop their piece.
The culmination is a performance for peers and family members, ranging from a politically potent, modern adaptation of the story of Narcissus and Echo or a modern adaptation of “The Arabian Nights” told via Instagram.
YAI is a national program, but the Atlanta program is unique because it’s the only city where Boys & Girls Clubs have partnered with a professional, non-profit arts organization. Currently, about 60 students participate in the program at three Boys & Girls Clubs: John H. Harland, Michael A. Grant and Whitehead.
Jalen, a middle-schooler at the Harland Club, said YAI has been life-changing for him. In addition to the social aspect, he said, “I attend YAI to learn different things about different plays. That way, if I want to create my own, I know how to tell the actors what to do.”
Jalen and his peers were all set for another round of YAI when the Coronavirus pandemic hit. However, it never occurred to anyone to shutter the program. Penner says that maintaining enrichment and recreational programming is especially important for Boys & Girls Clubs at this time.
With the help of Zoom video conferencing and the tenacity of some talented teens and tweens, the Alliance is running a six-week YAI session online. Alliance Theatre artist-in-residence Maya Lawrence and director Samantha Provenzano are working with the students to create virtual theater that will be presented on Zoom.
This time, the students are writing poems, songs and vignettes to create a show that reflects on their lives before and during quarantine, as well as what they imagine life will be like afterward.
Even though they won’t be performing on the Alliance main stage this semester as initially planned, Jalen says he still loves the experience, especially the improv activities they’ve been doing.
“I want the kids to know that they are producers and creators,” said Lawrence. “Even in a time like this, (when) a lot is being taken away from them, they are able to produce art into the world.”
If the virtual YAI program is successful, it could serve as a national model for Boys & Girls Clubs across the country. Regardless, Penner says they are now committed to offering programs led by experts.
“Leveraging paid, practicing, professional teaching artists has informed how we run other arts programs in the organization, as well as non-arts projects,” said Penner. “Now, we’re not just putting up a yoga video, but also pairing a professional yoga instructor with kids. It’s made a lasting impression.”
About the Author