Ashley Jordan grew up in Milwaukee loving the performing arts. Describing herself as “a first-stage kid”, she said she had taken many different classes, including music and ballet, but always came back to her “sweet spot”, acting.
Jordan, who is black, said her experiences in the performing arts were better when she saw people who looked like her. Now she works to support the current generation of young actors, as an artistic associate of Black Arts MKE and as a producer of the organization’s performing arts summer camp for young people, which lasted four weeks in July.
“One of the most important things to me is representation, and I’m also committed to ensuring that representation in the performing arts remains within our community from generation to generation,” Jordan said. “That’s one of the unique and beautiful things about this summer camp.”
The performing arts camp began in 2019, when children aged 12 to 18 spent four weeks learning to sing, dance and act, as well as making costumes and operating theater equipment. lighting, sound and video – all things that go into putting together a musical theater production. They staged their production on the last day of camp for their friends, family and community members in a ceremony called Kuumba.
Although the pandemic has forced changes to the program over the past three years – notably, capacity limits and final production at the outdoor Peck Pavilion rather than the Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall – the basics of the experience of the camp remain largely unchanged.
According to Barbara Wanzo, Executive Director of Black Arts MKE, each day of camp this summer began with a mindfulness exercise followed by breakfast. Then, the instructors – all performing artists working in Milwaukee – rotated teaching classes to the students, including creative writing, videography, voice instruction, choreography and acting.
Instructors helped students brainstorm an idea for their final production, write it down, and then practice the music and perform.
“The idea is to do musical theater and let the kids get experience on stage, but also behind the stage,” Wanzo said. “The result is to build self-confidence and self-esteem. It’s the number one thing the kids said they were proud of.”
Jordan said on the first day of camp, the students sat in a circle and shared what they hoped to achieve from camp. Although many were enthusiastic about singing, dancing and acting, their main focus was something else.
“A lot of them talked about gaining confidence, social skills, and friendships,” Jordan said. “By the end of camp, we had definitely achieved those goals. Even the quieter, more introverted students ended the experience with a friend or someone they could relate to.”
In addition to learning what was most important to the students during that first week, Jordan’s job was to figure out what performing arts skills they had. It’s something she and the instructors learned by guiding students through improv games and dance activities.
“We did an activity where everyone goes into the circle and does a dance on their own, then everyone repeats the move,” Jordan said. “A lot of their moves were good TikTok picks,” she said with a laugh.
Create your own musical
Jordan said a theme of identity emerged when one of the instructors, Brandi Reed, read to students the poem “I Am From,” adapted by Levi Romero from George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.” .
After reading the poem to the students, Reed encouraged them to remove the author’s responses to the “I am from” prompts and replace them with responses that reflected their own lives.
The exercise culminated in the theme of the musical, a message that the students also wore on the back of their t-shirts during the final performance: “We are…I have just…I am…I will…”.
During the production, the students filled in the blanks through songs, monologues, dance and rap lyrics. Some students talked about their homes, saying they were “my family every vacation” or “fluffy blankets and stuffed animals” or “my father’s shadow”.
Other responses were more existential, referring to “dark and light, joy and sadness” and reflecting fears of growing up as black men and the pressure to understand the future.
While many students made their “I am” statements unprompted, Jordan said instructors help other students gather their thoughts.
“The music director asked the students to write adjectives about who they are to trigger thoughts to move them forward,” Jordan said. “We also gave all students a journal and pencil on the first day of camp and encouraged them to write down their feelings and thoughts whenever they came to mind.”
Make a horror video, but how scary is it?
During the camp, the instructors also helped the students brainstorm and produce what would become part two of the final production – a video sketch titled “The Happy Disappearance”.
The comic horror showed the students disappearing one by one in a mystery that – spoiler alert – had a happy and fun ending.
Jordan said she remembers hearing enthusiastic suggestions from students as they worked on the skit with an instructor and then watching them learn what went into filming a video, including learning shooting from different angles, how to hold boom mics to get good sound. then edit everything together.
“The kids really enjoyed making the video, and it was a collaborative effort,” Jordan said. “When they told me they wanted to do a horror movie, I said to them, ‘wait a minute, I’m a scared cat!’ Their instructor backed them off a bit, telling them to make sure it was kid-friendly for younger siblings who would see it.”
She needn’t have worried though; During the final part of the production, a question-and-answer session between the performers and the audience, a little girl told Jordan that she liked the musical and the video. She did, however, have a note for future performing arts camp performances.
“Next time it should be longer. And scarier.”