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by Roger Horton

At the Educational Justice Symposium on March 31, one of the many memorable speakers was Kenneth Phillips from The Possibility Project. He spoke of Project’s humble beginnings as City of Peace on the streets of Washington, DC, as a way to address violence and racial division – and of its current focus on using performance art and community action to empower NYC teenagers in multiple ways.

I have been impressed with other NYC-based organizations that use performance art as a means to engage young people such as the All-Stars Project and Theatre of the Oppressed.

At the Symposium I was fascinated by Kenneth’s description of how youth who become a part of The Possibility Project’s programs (through non-competitive auditions) are often transformed while learning much about themselves, their abilities, and how they relate to others.

EJS Pic 1

At the Educational Justice Symposium at Teachers College, Columbia University – March 31, 2014

It turned out that The Possibility Project’s latest show, “Uproute”, was happening last week so I took the opportunity to ride out to Brooklyn and see what the results looked like in person.  The show had already started when I arrived, and one of the young staff members guided me professionally to a balcony seat overlooking the entire stage.  For the next hour the stage was filled with dramatic encounters between the show’s teenage actors: conversations, arguments, scenes of bullying, family fights, child abuse, children running away, siblings in tears, and all of it coming from the experiences of the teenagers themselves.

The emotional power of the scenes easily compensated for any rough edges in acting ability.  Lessons were clearly learned as each of the difficult situations moved towards resolution.  The parents involved learned as many lessons as their children.  The show culminated in an all-hands finale that was exuberant, playful, and moving.  The sight of 50 teenage actors in the final song of the night could have been any high school musical but the power of their stories and the energy and emotion they used to share those stories set this performance apart.

After the show, still thinking about the heavy themes, I ended up in the tiny lobby packed with the excited actors and their proud parents, siblings, and friends.  Youth were selling stylish merchandise to support the work of the organization, and everyone looked like they were enjoying what they were doing!  The party spilled out onto the street as members of the cast gathered in front of the theater, still filled with the energy of the evening.

The evening was beautiful and powerful for me because I had been witness to something special, something that must have been transformative for those involved.  The stories that were shared were vivid reminders of how much healing many young people need, and how it only happens when others are there to lean on and be supportive.  Many of the speakers at the Ed Justice Symposium spoke of the critical importance of youth believing in themselves.  Putting together a full-length musical in two months and presenting it to a full house is, in my mind, all about believing in yourself.

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