Lessons via songs, stories

A performing arts group gives students a brief tour of black history

March 04, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A year ago, Folly Quarter Middle School celebrated Black History Month with a student variety show.

The youngsters had fun singing songs and reciting poetry from black artists, said music teacher Stacey Sartor, but the event did not teach them much about black history.

This year, Sartor invited a performing arts group called ArtsCentric to give an abbreviated tour of African-American history through story, song and poetry. Sartor had met the group's executive director, Cedric Lyles, while both were students at Morgan State University, she said.

Seventh-grader Raynna Nkwanyuo, 12, said she preferred this year's event.

"Last year, we didn't really have anything that brought out the meaning of Black History Month," she said.

Raynna was among about 20 students in the Folly Quarter Singers who took the stage Friday with the ArtsCentric performers to open the show with a richly textured rendition of the national anthem.

"I felt honored to be on stage with them," she said.

ArtsCentric, based in Baltimore, was founded by 12 artists in 2003 and performs in theaters, churches, schools and elsewhere. Many of the members are current or former teachers.

The performers at Folly Quarter were Kevin McAllister, Crystal Freeman, Joy Dobson, Dayna Quincy, Michael Robinson, Cynthia Renee and Lyles.

The show, narrated by McAllister, combined songs and acting to give an overview of African-American culture, starting with slave ships and progressing through the Harlem Renaissance and Motown.

"They were amazing," said Molly Harding, 12, one of the students who sang the national anthem with the performers. She said she liked the way the show mixed history with performance.

Students could not help but tap their toes and sing along to songs like "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "My Girl." The performers kept the students involved by urging them to sing and to clap, and they often left the stage to roam through the cafeteria while they performed.

Sartor said the group tailored the show to the middle-school-age audience. By the second performance of the day, the seventh-graders had heard they should request a rendition of the Dreamgirls hit song "I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." After Freeman obliged, the room erupted in cheers.

Though the music soared, the performance touched on serious themes, starting with the deadly ships that took Africans to America and a life of slavery.

"Can you imagine being locked in your room for three months and not being able to use the restroom?" McAllister asked, in describing the conditions on the ship.

The performers then acted out a scene of a slave being sold. "It was during this time that we began to sing because it was the only thing we were allowed to do in the field, besides work," said one performer, before a mournful version of "Sweet Chariot."

The performers changed costumes frequently to depict the rapidly progressing timeline. Other scenes showed blacks trying to escape slavery, becoming indentured servants after emancipation and singing joyfully in Harlem nightclubs. Renee performed "Summertime" as Billie Holiday and "Respect" as Aretha Franklin.

The show ended with the group holding hands to sing "We Shall Overcome." McAllister urged all students to overcome hurdles and listed inspirational black Americans such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, television personality Oprah Winfrey and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.

Then the performers took questions from the students. One of the first was: "Why aren't you guys on American Idol?"

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