There’s a hidden gem tucked behind Atlanta’s Carver high schools in a red brick building that is home to a neighborhood food cooperative.
Inside a large, worn gym in the Historic South Atlanta community, young dancers, singers and actors blend their voices and talents to produce gripping social commentary. For 25 years, Youth Ensemble of Atlanta has given students training in the arts, scholarships and a safe place to express themselves. Twice a year, auditions bring students from as far away as Gwinnett and Cherokee counties to the nonprofit with a tiny staff and $300,000 annual budget.
YEA’s annual fundraising gala is Saturday at the Rialto Center for the Arts on the campus of Georgia State University. Actress Wendy Raquel Robinson of “The Steve Harvey Show” and “The Game” is the honored guest. Robinson runs a similar performing arts program for students in Los Angeles and has been a longtime supporter of YEA, said executive director Debi Barber.
YEA was founded in 1990 as the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble. Hendricks is a local actor who along with S. Renee Clark staged the group’s first show.
Barber and choreographer Charles Bullock have worked together for 25 years to train young performers in YEA. Singer and reality star Kandi Burruss, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Kenan Thompson and actor Kamil McFadden, who plays Ernie in the Disney Channel comedy “K.C. Undercover,” are among YEA’s distinguished alumni.
In 2008, the group was honored at the White House by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
Some of Atlanta’s most gifted young artists, including Kennedy Bright and Jai’len Josey, who won 2014 Georgia High School Musical Shuler Hensley Awards for their roles in “Dreamgirls,” are current company members.
Bright, who won for her portrayal of Lorrell in “Dreamgirls,” says YEA is unique because artistic directors and performers create their own plays.
A math major at Georgia State University, Bright works part time as a tutor for Atlanta public schools. The Tri-Cities High School graduate is completing a research project that combines her two loves — choreography and math.
Company member Kareem Grogan will attend the University of Alabama on a Gates Millennium scholarship, which pays full tuition, room and board for students through graduate school. The 18-year-old has been coming to YEA since he was 8 years old.
“What I love about YEA is, besides the fact that they train such young people who had passion for the arts but didn’t technically have technique, they’ve given them that and made them grow into something that really is unstoppable,” said Grogan, who will major in advertising and public relations and minor in dance.
“In YEA you find a lot of things, like fame, love and spirituality,” he said. “It’s quite amazing how they combine those components into shows.”
Niara Durley, a senior at Tri Cities, is in her third year at YEA. “It’s deep within the community,” she said. “It helps educate kids by doing what they love.”
The gala performance will take the audience on an emotional journey, said Tri-Cities junior Aaron Patterson. “YEA doesn’t just take you on one note. They take you through so many different levels, you cry and you laugh.”
Patterson saw a show several years ago that featured YEA performers. “They were so committed to what they were doing … I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ So I came and I auditioned and now I’ve been with it for four years.”
Saturday’s show will feature YEA performances from past productions including “Soweta,” based on YEA’s visit to a South African township.
“This group of young people pushes the envelope so much,” said YEA member Donivan Tilley, a 20-year-old junior at Kennesaw State University. “We have a piece in the show called ‘Yeah I Said It.’ Yes I did say that about things going on in the world. Many times people are afraid or shy away from saying the things that need to be said. We are saying it about police brutality, the recent events involving Sandra Bland, even the (Confederate) flags that were left at Ebenezer Baptist Church.”
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