Before the COVID-19 crisis, Sloane Johnson, a junior at Oswego East High School, was looking forward to her big debut on June 4 at Kennedy King College on Chicago’s South Side.
Every Wednesday night, she would travel from her west suburban home to meet up with about 30 other teens at the Chicago Urban League office in Bronzeville. Since October, they’ve been learning about singing, dancing and acting as part of Empower Youth, a program for African-American teens run by the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Urban League.
But the COVID-19 shutdown ended in-person rehearsals for the tight-knit group of teens. The show was canceled too. Postponing it was not an option — but giving up on the program wasn’t one either.
“No one on our staff team wanted to let them down. No one wanted to feel like we took this community away from them,” said Crystal Coats, interim director of Lyric Unlimited, an arm of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. [The teens’] “willingness to dive into this virtual situation was very rewarding.”
Since April, Sloane and other teens, who mostly come from Chicago public high schools and live on the South Side, have moved their weekly meetings online. They are planning for a virtual final performance.
“I come in there, and I am about to create. I’m going to make music. I am about to dance. I am going to make something artsy,” Saint Gates said of the online sessions. He is a senior at Dyett High School for the Arts. “I look forward to it all the time.”
“A lot of tears”
But moving practice online and letting go of the idea of a live performance wasn’t easy.
“There were a lot of tears,” Coats said.
Sloan added: “It was really upsetting. … I was really excited to see the process of [the production] and getting ready to do costumes and staging design.”
The program, which has an Afrocentric curriculum, is designed for black high school students, many of whom don’t have much access to the performing arts at their schools. They were making significant progress and moving to the final phase, which involved casting, costumes and getting familiar with the stage.
Despite that disappointment, most of the students are turning up online each week for an arts education and more.
Before the creative portion of the online session starts, Coats’ team checks in with the teens. Students talk about their favorite artists, their plans after high school or the challenges they are having at home.
“I am trying to figure out which area in the house gives me that comfort of being in school, because the rest of the house is still a distraction when all your family members are basically at home,” said one girl who the program didn’t want to be named to project her privacy. “My next option is locking myself in the bathroom.”
Some students don’t have a computer or internet access, said Shykira Richards, senior program manager with the Center for Student Development at the Chicago Urban League. Richards is the lead social worker for the program.
“We have one student who joins in from his phone, and his camera broke on his phone,” Richards said, adding other teens are facing trauma related to depression, bullying and gun violence.
“One thing that was prevalent this year and last year was suicide,” Richards said, noting that one student had a younger sibling who attempted suicide. In addition, the brother of another student was shot on the night of their performance last year.
Creating until the end
Despite the hardships, the teens keep on learning, with a new lesson each week. It could be about acting, script writing, dancing or opera. Teens also learn about African American playwrights, directors and singers, including Mary Violet Leontyne Price, a black soprano from the 1950s and ’60s.
Recently, the students held an online discussion with director Lili-Anne Brown, whose live play School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play at the Goodman Theater was also canceled due to COVID-19, though it’s showing online. Brown has been an acting mentor during the program and had planned to to direct the teens’ live show.
Students are also asked to create either a poem or reflective song, or learn a dance routine. The students share it online, and the instructors share notes and show them where they can improve.
And sometimes, students are asked to create on the spot.
“I miss my friends, the trends, my school life,” Anaya Cotton, a freshman at Brooks College Prep, recited during a recent online meeting.“ I just can’t pretend that this is right. All the laughs. The cries. The good times. The worst thing that’s happened during my lifetime.”
The program is ending in a few weeks. For their final presentation, they are working on an online show that includes live and prerecorded poems, dance routines and songs.
It won’t be the same. But their hope is to capture the essence of a bumpy, yet creative, journey.