Accentuating the positive

mercer-thumb2.jpg“Please don’t stop the rhythmic beat,” sang the young performers of Rhythm, Love, & Hip Hop: A Brooklyn Story. It’s a resonant lyric from their original musical, which was created through a partnership between NJPAC’s Arts Education Department and The Johnny Mercer Foundation.

Costumed in jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with “I am theater,” the middle-school students got the chance to show off the results of their newfound skills in a performance at NJPAC’s Chase Room. Produced by the students under the guidance of NJPAC’s Teaching Artists, the one-act show about competing dance crews illustrates that friendship and teamwork glitter more brightly than winners’ trophies.

Participating in the program were Arts High School (middle-school component) and Maple Avenue School, both in Newark; Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing & Fine Arts in East Orange, and Martin Center for the Arts in Jersey City. Four revolving casts, representing each school, were assigned a segment of the show, giving different actors the opportunity to play lead characters before an audience of family and friends.

The process, involving about a hundred students, began in the classrooms in February. Led by Teaching Artists Victor Burks, Tymothy Byerz and Janeece Freeman Clark, residencies met twice weekly for 20 sessions. Fulfilling the mission of The Johnny Mercer Foundation, students learned about the history of the American musical, lyric writing and the facets of stage production, while building their confidence and creativity. Rhythm, Love, & Hip Hop: A Brooklyn Story not only embraced a variety of musical forms and styles – rap, jazz, ballads, duets – but accompanied the numbers with tightly choreographed hip-hop moves, like popping, locking and breaking.

mercer-thumb1.jpgRepresenting The Johnny Mercer Foundation at the performance was its Vice President, musical theater composer Jonathan Brielle. Founded in 1983, the foundation supports the art of songwriting in the tradition of the Great American Songbook, as exemplified by Johnny Mercer (1909-1976), the renowned songwriter, performer, collaborator and producer. Mercer’s legacy is celebrated through partnerships with individuals and organizations dedicated to nurturing the disciplines he mastered and causes he championed with his wife, Ginger.

In opening remarks, NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber described Mercer’s body of work as “the soundtrack of the lives of Americans.” He noted that Mercer wrote the lyrics to one of his favorite songs, which contains this apt line: “This will be my shining hour.” For these young stars in the spotlight – word up.

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