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New show brings Black history to life for 2,000 students

Black Arts MKE
Harlem Renaissance cast photo.

Jazz music played as Milwaukee Public School elementary and middle school students filed into the Marcus Theater, Wednesday.

They were there to see Black Arts MKE’s new show, Harlem Renaissance.

The excited chatter died down as the show began. The audience was introduced to iconic figures in Black history like Ella Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes as actors portraying them came on stage dancing tap and singing.

Students were invited on stage by actors who taught them how to swing dance in four different styles. The audience also had the chance to participate in a ‘scatt off’ that the actors led as well.

Additionally, they learned about historic painters and authors like Jacob Lawrencw and Zora Neale Hurston.

Dawn Jackson, a teacher’s aide at Starms Discovery School, was one of the chaperones.

She says kids learn through speaking, and it was a learning experience for them to be able to see things demonstrated in song. She says it was good for the students to see theater displayed this way.

"Children, as well as adults, need to understand what Blacks and African Americans have contributed to this American history, which is our history, and what we try to teach the kids at the school is that it just didn't begin. It has been going on, and the richness of it was portrayed today and they can definitely learn more as they study and grow," says Jackson.

Jackson added that when the Black community makes art together it's not just a performance, it becomes living history.

"It's when it comes together, people can see themselves expressed through it all, through every entity of the arts, and I really am a proponent and believe that the arts help us to live and understand the world that we live in. So I'm just like, hey, let's do it. You know, let us do it. So I am grateful for art. And in many art forms that we are able to learn about and participate in. And it's just great to see it in theater," says Jackson.

Malaina Moore, the show’s director, agreed that it’s important for people to see themselves expressed in storytelling. Moore says she chose to direct Harlem Renaissance because the time period explores the vibrancy and the liveliness of Black culture.

Moore says the show is a big deal for Black Arts MKE because the organization wanted to see more repertory theater for children.

"Last year, you know, it was a, you know, one-week kind of smaller scale. And so it's really nice to be able to bring three weeks of theater to so many schools across the Milwaukee area. So I think it's been a pretty big deal. I'm pretty proud of what it has come out to be, and the students seem to be super engaged and loving what they're seeing," says Moore.

She says the Black community isn't monolithic and shouldn't be treated as such when it comes to telling stories. Moore says the Black community enjoys theater just as much as any other community.

Moore points out there are so many Black stories that still haven't been tapped into that need to be told within the community.

Support for the Eric Von Broadcast Fellowship is provided, in part, by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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