East Middle School Launches Theater Program with Original Production
Thursday, Feb. 28
On the last evening of February, students from East Middle School will take the stage to celebrate Black History Month with the school's first theatrical performance.
The show is titled The Rebirth of a Fallen Race: The Fall - The Journey - The Rise of the African American People, and a total of 55 students are involved in various facets of the production. Students are working with staff members Ashley Szkoda and Rachel Pierce on creating stage decorations and props. Community Schools Director Jamilia Gates (an Erie Reader 40 Under 40 alum) is supervising students as they learn African dancing and ballet. Music teacher Aaron Taylor and Minister of Music at Shiloh Baptist Church Elder LaMont C. Josey are working closely with students on the music.
The onstage performances will be directed by Kimberly Overton, an East Middle School teacher who also wrote the production. She's not new to such an endeavor — she's written numerous productions for her former church over the past 18 years — but this is the first show that she has written for the stage outside of church.
It certainly doesn't hurt that Overton has plenty of stage experience herself.
"I began in theater at the advice of my close friend, Carla Hughes," she says. In 2011, the Erie Playhouse was casting for the musical The Color Purple and her friend suggested that she audition. "Once I got over my nerves, I auditioned and landed the role of a church lady."
The three church ladies are challenging roles in The Color Purple, but also some of the most memorable. The part even landed her and her co-stars on the cover of Erie Reader — and she has continued acting at the Erie Playhouse ever since.
It was while Overton was co-teaching an eighth grade social studies class with Abby Nelson that the idea for writing Rebirth of a Fallen Race was born. During the course, they covered the slave trade, the Middle Passage, and the early years of chattel slavery in America — yet, it always seemed as though integral parts of the historical experience were being left out of the textbooks.
"One thing [that the curriculum] does not mention is what was life like for Africans before all of this," she notes. Nelson, along with her other colleagues and community members — which also includes Bishop Dwayne Brock — were eager to help. "[We wanted] to create a production that depicts the whole history of the African-American people … [and makes] African-American history come alive and spark an awareness in students that they may want to know more, be more, and do better."
She structured the acts of Rebirth chronologically, merging music, dance, and theatrics to tell a more complete story of the African-American historical experience: life before, during, and after the grueling journeys aboard slave ships, the realities of American slavery and the Civil War, the subsequent emancipation and Reconstruction, the inspiring Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, followed by the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers within the Civil Rights Movement. The show will even include the modern-day election of President Barack Obama.
"I wanted to create a stage performance that would bring to life the fall, the journey, and rise of a nation of people who had and have more to offer than oppression and hardships," Overton adds. "I want to awaken something in young students studying information from textbooks that there's more to African-American history than the lines they read across a page."
As the end of February approaches, East Middle School students have been hard at work. It is a show that is certain to inspire. — Jonathan Burdick
6 p.m. // East Middle School, 1001 Atkins St. // $5 adults , $2 students // facebook.com/eastmiddleschoolwarriors