Songs of themselves

Thanks to The Johnny Mercer Foundation, students bring their world to the stage.


“Can’t we just do The Wiz?” Kern Dowdy, a teacher at Avon Academy in Newark, remembers thinking, when he was told his class was going to participate in NJPAC’s Mercer Musical Theater workshop — and that they would be working on a musical about gun violence.


But 10 weeks later, by the time that his students — middle-schoolers all — made it to the stage in NJPAC’s Chase Room in early June to perform, Dowdy was a convert.


Maybe I Should, Maybe I Shouldn’t, the musical students from Avon Academy and four other area schools performed that day, not only looked at the effect of gun violence in schools and the toll bullying takes — on both students who are bullied, and those who do the bullying — but it also dealt with drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide.


Those themes are adult, but they were chosen by the students themselves.


The students wrote the musical, too — “every lyric, every line, every tune!” NJPAC teaching artist Janeece Freeman-Clark announced from the stage at the musical’s debut, in front of a crowd of cheering teachers and fellow students.


“It was some really tough subject matter to negotiate,” said Alex Ratner, another of the program’s teaching artists, who helped write the songs with each group of students, and also played keyboards for the performance.


“But these really are the topics that kids are talking about these days, and they are trying to find an outlet for that. This gave them the ability to discuss it through an artistic lens.”


This program — a collaboration between NJPAC and The Johnny Mercer Foundation, established by the late songwriter who gave the world “Moon River” and “Blues in the Night” —has for six years now put the power to create a musical of their own into the hands of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students from Newark and surrounding towns. The program is free to the schools and the students who are chosen to participate.


In previous years, the musicals students wrote dealt with gender roles, the pressure of high school sports, and even the life of pop star Michael Jackson. This year, as the students gathered to vote on the topics their musical would address in February, the shooting in Parkland, Fla. was freshly in the news. The children voted overwhelmingly to make gun violence the central theme of their piece.


Giving students an opportunity to voice their concerns is as much the point of the program as teaching them story structure and music theory, said Jonathan Brielle, Mercer Foundation Vice President, as he addressed the students before they took the stage.


“If you don’t speak up, we can’t hear you — and the world needs to hear from you!” he said.


In only five songs, Maybe I Should… told the story of Mike, a transplant from a rural area to a city high school, who is tormented by bullies; ignored by his mother, a relapsed drug addict; and, on top of that, cut from the basketball team he longs to play on. Then his uncle, a cop, leaves his gun unattended on a shelf, and to Mike, it seems like the weapon could be the answer to all his problems.



Not one but two plot twists, and a late-in-the-game switch in perspective — which explores the home-life difficulties that cause bullies to lash out — made the musical a surprisingly in-depth exploration of the roots of violence.


“The way the bullies were shown to have emotional baggage — I thought that was a really mature and nuanced layer to the story, one that’s always there and so rarely told,” noted Ratner.


Each participating school was given a portion of plot to write. In addition to Avon Academy, the Rafael Hernandez School, First Avenue School, LINK Community Charter School, all of Newark, and the Cleveland Street School of Orange, each tackled either the exposition of the plot, the rising action, the climax or the resolution. Each school performed the piece they had written; colorful costumes helped the audience keep track of which performer was now playing Mike, his lone friend Alexandra, his mother and his uncle.


The songs ranged from a wistful ballad, as Mike and Alexandra question “Why” they are picked on, to a metaphysical rap battle between an angel and a devil, acting out the pros and cons as Mike hesitates in the act of snatching his uncle’s firearm.


“The Sister of That Jerk,” from the Cleveland School, got the whole cast involved in singing about how family problems at home spill over into school.


“I wish I had a family that actually cared for me / I wish I wasn’t born into this mess!” they sang, in a big production number not unlike Annie’s “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” another song about grim childhoods told through a jaunty tune.


For the first time, one song and several scenes were presented bilingually, as students from the Rafael Hernandez School sang and acted their portion of the show — the exposition, which covers Mike’s arrival in a big city from his rural home — in both English and Spanish. Tierney Fitzmartin, the school’s drama teacher, told the audience the show was, for many of her students, the end of “a journey that began when they left their homes in Puerto Rico, Honduras, El Salvador and Ecuador.”


“There’s a line there where Mike sings: ‘They don’t even know my name yet,’ that really resonated with a lot of the students who just moved here,” Fitzmartin said afterward.


The program, she said, motivated her students on many levels: Some who “really weren’t that interested in writing or speaking English, when it was time to cast the parts, suddenly they were really excited and they wanted to do it.” Other students have already asked her if they can sign up for drama classes next year.


And “I loved that NJPAC put such a focus on the process of writing,” added Fitzmartin, who previously worked as both an actress and at the William Morris talent agency. She said writing their portion of the script, and seeing where other classes took the story, captivated her students just as much as the excitement of tech rehearsals, costume changes and performing at the Arts Center.


“We have plenty of actors in the world – we need more playwrights and writers, especially young voices!” she said.


June 14, 2018