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Theater Reaches Out to Youth in New Orleans

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Finding summer opportunities for kids is tough enough, but what if you lived in the Gulf region where many programs and facilities were washed away with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita? The directors of the Walltown Children's Theatre in Durham, North Carolina noticed this void, so they loaded teachers, electronic pianos and stage props and headed to New Orleans.

They spent the first two weeks of this month teaching New Orleans teenagers a play about a gangs in a city that's seen an escalation in crime since the devastating storms of one year ago.

North Carolina Public Radio's Leoneda Inge reports.

LEONEDA INGE reporting:

Joseph Henderson has read about the reopening of the New Orleans Superdome and the French Quarter, but the director of the Walltown Children's Theatre in Durham wondered about the city's youth programs since more than half of New Orleans' parks, recreation centers and pools are still closed. So Henderson wrote to the city and Walltown was welcomed to do what it does best, expose children of color to the arts.

(Soundbite of boxes being moved, falling)

Mr. JOSEPH HENDERSON (Director, Walltown Children's Theatre): There we have ten electronic pianos, a set, you know, a partial set, costumes, fencing equipment, basketballs, water jugs. Everything you would need to have to a camp.

INGE: The first week, the theatre camp rehearsed at the St. Bernard Recreation Center where the neighborhood is still empty. A final production was staged downtown. Cynthia Penn is Walltown's artistic director.

Ms. CYNTHIA PENN (Artistic Director, Walltown Children's Theatre): You know, the first day that we came we had no electricity. The bathrooms, we had to take the flashlight. They hadn't been cleaned. We actually opened that facility for the first time, so I'm very proud of that.

INGE: Also after that first day, Penn says she knew the theatre's work was cut out for them.

Ms. PENN: Children in this area have experienced a lot of broken promises. They've had to wait for basic services. And I realize in the first day in working with them it was going to be really difficult to gain their trust.

INGE: But Penn didn't hold back on the tough love.

Ms. PENN: I'm not starting until people are quiet backstage. Lots of hand gestures, okay. Go sound, go lights.

(Soundbite of music)

INGE: This is the opening scene of the play called Bangin'. Bangin' is about a gang-related shooting that took the life of a teenager named Katrina Carr. That's right, her real name was Katrina and the play was first staged in Durham before the storm. A main character is Tony, Katrina's boyfriend. Tony joins a gang without telling Katrina, putting her in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jonathan Odom(ph) plays Tony. Odom is a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts and he taught at the camp. He says it took a while for the boys to open up and participate.

Mr. JONATHAN ODOM (Walltown Theatre Participant) They really started taking to us when we started doing the combat and the fake fighting, and just seeing what we could do with that and going a little too far. And then...

INGE: They were beating you up good, weren't they?

Mr. ODOM: They were beating up good. Did it look good, the way they were beating me up?

(Soundbite of play, Bangin')

Unidentified Man: See now you're in this brotherhood. You got one boss, me. Jump him in. Tattoo, let's show him who is real family is.

(Soundbite of music)

INGE: Because of all the recent gang-related murders in New Orleans, the city and Walltown decided the play Bangin' was appropriate. Kashura Wilson(ph) of Jefferson Parish was one of 50 teenagers participating in the camp. She just returned to New Orleans in June after evacuating to Atlanta. The 15-year-old played the role of Tanya(ph), Katrina's best friend.

Ms. KASHURA WILSON (Walltown Theatre Participant): I like that it's showing, you know, young teens they don't have to be on the streets hustling to make money. You could, you know, you could have dreams or whatever. You can go to school. Do it the right way, the legal way.

INGE: Many parents said they got more than they expected out of the experience. They got to know their kids better and see them blossom. Takeisha Napper(ph) had a 12-year-old daughter in the production.

Ms. TAKEISHA NAPPER (Parent of Walltown Theatre Participant): I was glad to have her join and participate in the program because she was a very shy child. And to see her up there, I'm just so ecstatic for her. I can't believe it. I'm so happy. I'm not going to cry. I cried earlier. I'm not going to cry now though.

(Soundbite of music)

INGE: The experience was also heartwarming for Anthony Sears(ph), the camp's choir director and music teacher. This is a song he taught the campers for Katrina's funeral scene.

Mr. ANTHONY SEARS (Choir Director, Walltown Children's Theatre Camp): There's a man going around taking names, and it talks about he's taken my sister's name and he's left my heart in pain, and death is that man who's taking names. It's a very old spiritual.

(Soundbite of music)

INGE: Sears was born in Louisiana and taught music in the New Orleans public schools before Hurricane Katrina. About a month after the storm, he found a new job in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Sears says he didn't think twice about helping out with the camp.

Mr. SEARS: It was really wonderful. It happened at just a perfect time because I was still feeling like I didn't have kind of closure with my students, and albeit I've never seen a lot of my students since I've been back, I feel like I've taught New Orleans' kids. So that gives me the impetus to keep going and say, okay, I have closure with the city.

INGE: Now Sears is back in North Carolina where school begins later this week. Sears doesn't know if he'll return to New Orleans for good. Just like all the closed recreation centers and parks, many schools won't reopen until families and kids are back to fill them.

For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She explores modern and historical constructs to tell stories of poverty and wealth, health and food culture, education and racial identity. Leoneda is also co-host of the podcast Tested, allowing for even more in-depth storytelling on those topics.