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Blumenthal Looks To Inspire Freedom School Students By Letting Them Experience Live Theater

Glenn H. Burkins for QCitymetro.com
Before attending a matinee performance of "Annie" at Charlotte's Belk Theater, a group of Freedom School students from Bennettsville, S.C., got to meet and question some of the show's cast memebers, including Issie Swickle, left, who played the title role

On a recent Thursday in uptown Charlotte, 1,100 Freedom School students unloaded from buses and trooped into the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center to see a matinee performance of “Annie,” the Tony Award-winning musical.

For some, it was their first time attending a Broadway-style show. Reggie Miller of Charlotte was typical.

“I’m excited to see all the action,” said the young African American student. “I’m really looking forward to seeing the dancing. I never saw the movie or the play.”

In an effort to inspire students who otherwise might never see a Broadway musical, Blumenthal Performing Arts has been working with Freedom Schools though a program called “Arts for All.” The partnership began in 2013 when Blumenthal hosted about 1,000 Freedom School students for a performance of “The Lion King.”

Cindy Rice, Blumenthal’s vice president for development, said her first interaction with Freedom Schools, at the program's annual celebration and fundraiser, “Jubilee,” had a profound effect on her.

“I was frankly inspired by the program, the students, and student interns,” she said. “These are the types of kids that should have the opportunity to see some of our shows on our stages.”

With help from corporate and individual donors, Blumenthal raised about $75,000 to cover the costs of the recent student outing. That was enough to not only buy tickets for each student but to also cover bus transportation and lunch for a group of Freedom School students from Bennettsville, S.C.

Earlier this year, though its “Arts for All” program, Blumenthal provided about 2,000 tickets to various Charlotte-area organizations to see “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Reaching beyond its normal audiences has become a recurring theme at Blumenthal. In an interview earlier this year with Qcitymetro, Blumenthal President Tom Gabbard said his goal is to sign more shows that appeal to Charlotte’s increasingly diverse population.

In addition, Blumenthal has found ways beyond its “Arts for All” program to reach a younger and more diverse crowd. For example, when the “Breakin' Convention” hip-hop festival comes to Charlotte Oct. 9-10, events will include some free acts performed on outdoor stages set up at the Levine Center for the Arts. And working with primary sponsor Wells Fargo, Blumenthal will distribute 1,200 free tickets to local students and youth-oriented groups when Dance Theatre of Harlem comes to town Jan. 22 - 24 , 2016.

Paris Ellerbe, a Freedom School college intern from Bennettsville, said the recent bus trip to Charlotte was eye opening for the students.

“Once we got into Charlotte, the kids were amazed by seeing the tall buildings,” she said.

Ellerbe said that like some of her students, she, too, was seeing a Broadway musical for the first time.

“I’m excited,” she said. “I’m a big kid myself.”

Quintin Nwaebo, a Freedom School intern who is studying dance at Johnson C. Smith University, said while growing up in Washington, D.C., he wished he had opportunities to see live performances.

“I’m glad Freedom Schools is a program that opens up eyes in many different areas,” he said. “There’s a lot of kids who want to dance, and they didn’t know they can go to school for that and get a scholarship.”

In addition to lunch and the “Annie” performance, the Bennettsville students also got to meet some of the show’s cast members, including Issie Swickle, a diminutive redhead who played the title role of Annie.

“I can’t wait to see the people who are going to act live on stage,” Joshua Bucler, a Freedom School student from Charlotte, said as he waited for the show to began. “I saw the modern movie version with my family, but I haven’t seen a musical live before.”

Mary Nell McPherson, executive director of Freedom School Partners in Charlotte, said that without Blumenthal, it would be impossible for some of her students to participate in such activities.

“Our children are more than just a number,” she said. “They need enrichment to help them succeed in school and life.”

Rice, Blumenthal’s development director, agrees.

“We know that theater inspires and lifts us up,” she said, “and we want all our children to experience that.”

Rice said she felt it especially appropriate that Freedom School students got to attend a production of “Annie,” with its themes of overcoming obstacles.

“It’s about getting up when you get knock down in life, continuing to persevere,” she said. “I think those are messages that particularly this group of kids may be able to relate to.”

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance