In February 2022, Tri-Cities High School VPA Magnet, Troupe #5392, in metro Atlanta performed Fela!, a musical that welcomes its audience into the extravagant, decadent, and rebellious world of Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Using his pioneering music (a blend of jazz, funk, and African rhythm and harmonies), Fela! explores Kuti’s controversial life as artist, political activist, and revolutionary musician.
The school’s performance was made possible thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Educational Theatre Foundation’s Pathway program, currently in its pilot phase. Pathway is designed to foster racial equity through school theatre. Schools in low-income communities of color use the funds to produce plays or musicals that encourage dialogue about racial equity. Students of color are paired with theatre professionals of color to serve as mentors during the production and beyond.
“[Pathway] allowed us to employ top-rate artists and designers to work with our students and teach them skills in design, music, and acting,” said Jade Lambert-Smith, the school’s drama teacher and director of the production. The school partnered with three professional artists and technicians: Mizan Willis, a Los Angeles-based expert African percussionist; Calvin Lewis, a professional lighting designer; and Duain Martyn, who played Kuti on the first national tour of the Broadway production of Fela!
“The Pathway program was created in 2019, and after two years of pandemic delays, we are so thrilled to see Fela! blow away our expectations. This program relies heavily on a theatre leader with a strong vision, and Jade Lambert-Smith was the perfect partner. I cannot wait to see what happens as the program expands,” says program director Lori Valentine. (Applications for a 2022-23 Pathway grant are open now. Deadline is April 15, 2022.)
Student participants shared that this experience has opened their eyes to the possibilities of arts careers after high school and taught them the professionalism needed to work in the performing arts, whether as artist or technician.
"It showed me I am capable of more than I think. And that if I trust myself, I can achieve my dreams." — Tri-Cities theatre student
The program realizes the vision of the late producer Craig Zadan, who made musical theatre more accessible by breaking down racial barriers throughout his career. A tribute event following Zadan’s death sparked the development of Pathway by raising funds and inspiring a celebrity advisory board that includes Kristin Chenoweth, Kenny Leon, Audra McDonald, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Danny and Lilly Pino, John Stamos, John Travolta, Nia Vardalos, and Renee Zellweger.
Zadan’s husband, Elwood Hopkins, a member of the ETF Board of Trustees, attended the Tri-Cities performance and was thrilled to see his late husband’s vision come to life. “Craig always felt that high school productions should be taken as seriously and professionally as any major Broadway show. Teachers, like the ones at Tri-Cities High School, should have high expectations of their students, and the students should have access to the best resources imaginable,” said Hopkins. “I could not have been more proud of or impressed by the ensemble and the backstage production team—or more affirmed in the value of this program.”
You can catch an encore performance of Fela! at the 2022 International Thespian Festival in Bloomington, Indiana on June 24. Students from around the world will gather for a week-long celebration of educational theatre with performances from high schools around the country.