At the helm of this year’s Teen Summer Musical, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, is a skillful and extraordinary young woman, Ms. Marita Phelps. I sat down with Marita this week, just one week prior to the opening of the musical to learn more about her experience and the highlights of working with the youth on this production. Marita’s insights show a commitment to the performing arts and to it’s salient role in the holistic development of our youth.
Negarra A. Kudumu: What is your artistic specialty? And please share with us a little info on your professional trajectory to date.
Marita Phelps: I love the performing arts and all the roles within it! Although, I have written plays more than anything I love to act and direct as well.
I began playwriting at age thirteen when my first one-act drama, Don’t Ever Call Me Black was staged in Seattle’s FringeACT Festival of New Original Work in 2004. I went on to attend Howard University for playwriting where I earned a BFA. My one-act, Smoke & Mirrors was featured in the DC Black Theatre Festival in 2010 and in the Howard Player’s 24-Hour Playwriting Festival. I was a visiting student of Columbia University in my junior year where I began developing my first full-length play, Baggage of Beauty, later read at Howard University and again in the DC Black Theatre Festival in 2012. Recently, I began to broaden my skillset even further into arts administration. I will enter Master of Fine Arts program this fall at Seattle University to pursue Leadership in the Arts.
NAK: In what ways so you see the performing arts having had an impact on the lives of young people?
MP: The performing arts serves youth development in so many ways! Really I could talk about it forever. This summer some of the positive outcomes I have witnessed are confidence, the gaining of self-worth and learning one’s history. Producing Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry presented the perfect backdrop for creative ways to teach our teens African American history. Since it is proper to research the background information and context of a play, we were able to slide in history lessons with little to no resistance. Being that African American history is underrepresented and misinterpreted in classrooms, it is very rewarding to offer something to our youth that they may not have the chance to learn again until college. I overheard some of them talking among themselves saying things like “Wow, I learned more here than I did at school. “ and “How come they don’t teach this at school?” We were able to offer our youth a long-view history of the people of African descent opposed to beginning the story at the point of enslavement, which is so vital to one’s sense of confidence and self-worth. I love seeing their faces light up when they finally get it after I’ve interrogated them with question after question. Things like, “What’s your objective here? What type of emotional state does this put you in?” I would spend 15-20 minutes working with each young person – even those with the smallest roles, with just a few lines – in front of their peers and as a result, their sense of contribution to group and their confidence dramatically increased.
NAK: What has been most exciting about this year’s Summer Performing Arts Academy?
MP: The most exciting part about this year’s Summer Academy and Musical is the abundance of natural talent in the group. So many of the youth have never performed before or have limited experience but are immensely talented! I have felt chills a couple of times in rehearsal after songs and well played scenes. I am really excited to be able to mold their talents, teach them basic acting skills and professional theater standards. It’s also been interesting to see some of them become really serious about the performing arts after having experienced the summer academy and musical. I can’t wait for the community to see what we’ve all worked so hard on this summer.