As I descended the stairs to The Vault, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Saturday’s Black Genius Field Trip focused on careers in theater. Our featured guests were Kalilah Black, a member of the Broadway musical The Lion King, and Monet Marshall, leader of Durham’s Mojoaa Performing Arts Company. Having seen The Lion King a few weeks prior, I was excited to hear about the inner workings of the production.
The room felt like a theater. I was greeted by stage lights from Insibiah Media, cameras from The Beautiful Project, and a near full house of kids and their families at the edge of their seats. Volunteers set up chairs and concessions while children wrestled with anticipation, poking each other and whispering excitedly. Babies took in the sights and sounds curiously as parents talked among themselves easily and comfortably, knowing that their families were in a safe space. Much to my surprise, even the older kids seemed eager for the afternoon to begin. Sure, they walked in coolly, as teens do, but their eyes showed excitement, taking it all in.
Two regal Black women assumed center stage. Smartly dressed and owning the space, Monet gently coaxed the youth to the floor. “Could all of the young people and young at heart please join me down here on the mat?” The kids took their places with no hesitation, scooting around and making room for one another. Watching them as they hungrily awaited instruction from these beautiful women invoked an image of village Elders passing on their wisdom. Before them stood two highly accomplished women boasting college degrees, acting careers, and entrepreneurial success. An instant bond formed between the ladies, children, and families, setting the tone for the remainder of the afternoon. One by one, hands shot up with questions. The future stars were anxious to soak up all that the women had to offer. In that exchange lay an unseen, selective trust between the families and the dynamic duo. Because these women looked like them, spoke like them, and seemed to understand them, the children were open to the knowledge they could impart. Language and a sense of humor really opened the pathways for the children to open up to Kalilah and Monet who were not only down to earth, but also recognized the wonderful creativity within each child. They expected the best from the children which led to positive responses.
The youth asked questions like, “How old were you when you started acting?” and “How did your parents feel about you wanting to be an actress?” This conversation, shed light on the starting point of Black Genius awareness of Interest and talents. A child’s recognition of their own intellectual curiosity foreshadows a passion that could very well drive their career path. VOW’s Blueprint for Black Genius recognizes that children who are aware of their talents and interests are easily motivated and smoothly navigate toward their self-determined goals. The confidence that accompanies a child’s self-awareness gives parents the first tools they need to communicate with, affirm their child, and move them along their chosen path.
By illuminating the wealth of opportunities for young people, “Careers in Theater” pushed families to disrupt existing systems. Indeed, young people who are extended the grace to think outside of conventional standards will explore how to imagine their Highest Selves independent of social barriers such as racism, classism, sexism. Monet introduced this revisioning of self within a free Black future as Afro-futurism which visibly challenged the sensibilities of most of the kids. It was as if the idea of having a world devoid of racial inequity hadn’t occurred to many of them. Boundless ceilings were a new territory that the children would leave with that day as well as practical ways of pursuing that Promised Land. Therein, a silent pact was made. Parent to child, family to family, child to teacher- all resolved to dream big and uphold one another’s vision.
Visioning and the role of a supportive community became a central theme in conversation and was showcased through interactive games like “Let’s Make a Machine” and “Fainting Durham”. Play is instrumental in learning, but the same can be said for community building as these games allowed the children to see how each their fates were not only similar to other Youth in the room but interconnected. They were able to learn the responsibility that they have to one another as well as the benefits of shared visioning. Kalilah and Monet, even went so far as to retell the story of their friendship, successfully illustrating another Black Genius element; the necessity of trust and vulnerability in relationships when reaching for success.
Unsure of the future that could be, a lingering question summed up the day’s events. “What do you think is the number one thing a young person can do to be successful?” A moment of quiet settled over the room as the ladies considered the day’s conversations, honoring the weight of such a question. Although we know that there isn’t a foolproof recipe for achieving one’s highest potential, we were now privy to a host of principles that could put one closer to their crowning moment. The gutsy answer? “Create your own idea of what success is and go after it.” What would normally seem like a vague response landed softly and was well received. It was padded with the days’ summations and could be unpacked at home with a more than capable community of families equipped with new language and relationships to communicate through.
Finally, a farewell song and dance offered the benediction. As Kalilah’s melodious voice floated over the audience, the fluidity of movement and the confidence with which the group danced engrained in our minds an aesthetic of supportive community. Each child holding true to their unique form, allowed us to appreciate the way we complement and edify one another within a cooperative system. Each one taking their place under a single song helped us to envision the future that is our birthright to claim. In a single afternoon we’d empowered ourselves to empower one another. We were feeling ourselves and we were confident in our abilities and the strength of the community that would take us there- there being our our bright, beauty-full, unbounded future.
Images made in solidarity by The Beautiful Project for the preservation of Black Genius