West Char­lotte teens tell Amer­ica’s story in EduHam

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY ANN DOSS HELMS [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Kaycee Hai­ley got hooked on “Hamil­ton” when she watched the 2016 Tony awards with a friend. Not only did Lin-Manuel Mi­randa’s Broad­way mu­si­cal sweep the the­ater awards, but the African-Amer­i­can teen from Char­lotte saw a pa­rade of per­form­ers who looked like her.

Fast for­ward two years. “Hamil­ton” had come to Char­lotte, where some tickets sold for more than $400.

Hai­ley, now a se­nior at West Char­lotte High, had fallen hard for Mi­randa’s catchy tunes, witty lyrics and fresh telling of Amer­ica’s story through the eyes of Alexan­der Hamil­ton. She had lis­tened to “Sat­is­fied,” her fa­vorite song, maybe 100 times.

On Nov. 1, Hai­ley and two friends, Kaliyah Lan­drum and Shaz­aria Hoover, walked into the Blu­men­thal Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter – not through the lobby but through the stage door. They passed dress­ing rooms where cos­tumes were laid out for the up­com­ing mati­nee.

Vi­o­lin case in hand, Hai­ley looked out at the tow­er­ing brick back­drop where she would soon see “Hamil­ton” come to life.

But first, the trio of 17-yearolds would have to de­liver their own per­for­mance, an orig­i­nal poem about Sally Hem­ings’ life set to mu­sic. And they’d have to do it in a the­ater packed four lay­ers deep with teens.

De­spite her nerves, Hai­ley says, she felt a surge of power. In their telling, Hem­ings wouldn’t just be the slave and mis­tress of Pres­i­dent Thomas Jef­fer­son. She would be a black woman whose pain, sac­ri­fice and courage are the story of Amer­ica.

Hai­ley struck up an orig­i­nal tune in a mi­nor key. By the time Hoover and Lan­drum re­cited their fi­nal lines – “For Lady Lib­erty to stand tall / So many black women had to fall” – the au­di­ence was ap­plaud­ing wildly.

EDUHAM IN CHAR­LOTTE

Wel­come to the Hamil­ton Ed­u­ca­tion Pro­gram, com­monly known as EduHam.

The ar­rival of the road show in North Carolina – first Char­lotte, then Durham (through Dec. 2) – stirred a frenzy among fans who lacked the money or op­por­tu­nity to see Hamil­ton in New York, Chicago or San Fran­cisco.

Be­hind the scenes, ed­u­ca­tors, phi­lan­thropists and arts back­ers were work­ing to en­sure that about 2,000 stu­dents from 22 schools would get a chance not only to see the show in Char­lotte for $10 – “a Hamil­ton” – but to en­gage with Amer­i­can his­tory in ways that speak to their own ex­pe­ri­ence.

EduHam came about when his­to­rian and au­thor Ron Ch­er­now, whose bi­og­ra­phy of Hamil­ton was the ba­sis for the mu­si­cal, told the Gilder Lehrman In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can His­tory about a for­mer sev­enth-grade English teacher who had com­posed an off-Broad­way mu­si­cal about the first U.S. Trea­sury sec­re­tary.

Ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor Tim Bai­ley says he was skep­ti­cal but went to check it out. “Yeah,” he re­calls say­ing, “I think we can do some­thing with this.”

The In­sti­tute, Mi­randa, Hamil­ton pro­ducer Jef­frey Seller, the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion and the New York City Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion pulled to­gether an ed­u­ca­tional tie-in in the fall of 2015, open to stu­dents in high-poverty Ti­tle I schools. Char­lotte is among 14 cities tak­ing part as the show tours the coun­try in 2018-19. (Dur- ham isn’t.)

The John S. and James L. Knight Foun­da­tion, Duke En­ergy Foun­da­tion and Blu­men­thal Per­form­ing Arts kicked in to make the lo­cal pro­gram hap­pen.

HUR­RI­CANES AND HIS­TORY

It’s not enough for par­tic­i­pat­ing schools to meet the poverty guide­lines and ask for dis­counted tickets. They must agree to a rig­or­ous les­son plan that will be used in Amer­i­can his­tory classes, with each stu­dent’s work sub­mit­ted to the in­sti­tute.

At West Char­lotte High, en­thu­si­asm more than off­set the hur­dles. The school has played its own role in Char­lotte his­tory – as a fo­cus of AfricanAmer­i­can pride school dur­ing Jim Crow seg­re­ga­tion, a na­tional role model for de­seg­re­ga­tion in the 1970s and a sym­bol of re­seg­re­ga­tion to­day.

Prin­ci­pal Timisha Barnes-Jones likes to talk about rewrit­ing the head­lines – coun­ter­ing re­ports about aca­demic strug­gles and vi­o­lence in the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity with a vi­sion of a mostly black school that’s gen­er­at­ing pride and suc­cess. Last year, West Char­lotte re­vived its the­ater depart­ment, stag­ing Mi­randa’s pre­vi­ous mu­si­cal “In the Heights.”

Barnes-Jones and her teach­ers hoped EduHam would pro­vide an­other chance to shine.

Hai­ley, the young Hamil­ton fan, was ec­static. She had asked her mom to email the prin­ci­pal about EduHam as soon as she heard the show was com­ing to Char­lotte.

Other stu­dents weren’t sure what the fuss was about. “Some were like, ‘Ugh, a mu­si­cal,’” re­calls his­tory teacher Ayanna Perry.

HOW DO YOU KNOW?

Dur­ing a class in early Oc­to­ber, Perry had stu­dents lis­ten to “Help­less” and “Sat­is­fied,” songs about the com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween Hamil­ton and sis­ters El­iza and An­gel­ica Schuyler. In the mu­si­cal, the sis­ters are both sin­gle and smit­ten, with An­gel­ica yield­ing to let her sis­ter be­come Hamil­ton’s bride.

In re­al­ity, Perry told the class, An­gel­ica was al­ready mar­ried by the time the sis­ters met Hamil­ton.

The stu­dents talked about how the scenes re­mind them of re­la­tion­ship drama in their own lives. A fe­male stu­dent men­tioned “the girl code” against mov­ing on some­one else’s boyfriend. A male class­mate re­sponded that “Hamil­ton started it.”

“Ev­ery­body’s a gos­sip,” an­other stu­dent said. “How do you know what was true?”

If EduHam could be boiled down to one ques­tion, that would be it. The goal is to teach stu­dents how to find and in­ter­pret orig­i­nal doc­u­ments and un­der­stand how his­tory is fil­tered through the voice of the teller.

Perry says she can grab in­ter­est with mu­sic and videos in a way that might not hap­pen with texts. “If I know how to pull a song apart,” she said, “I know how to pull a doc­u­ment apart.”

WHOSE STORY TO TELL

In or­der to at­tend the show, each EduHam stu­dent has to cre­ate a twominute pre­sen­ta­tion based on a fig­ure or episode from the pe­riod of his­tory en­com­passed in “Hamil­ton.”

For some, it was lit­tle more than a tra­di­tional oral re­port. Oth­ers turned to mu­sic, po­etry, rap and drama.

The West Char­lotte trio brought a mix of skills to their project. Lan­drum and Hoover are both vis­ual artists. Hoover also likes to write.

Hai­ley is a vi­o­lin­ist and writer whose opin­ion pieces about ed­u­ca­tion have been pub­lished in the Ob­server and EdNC, an on­line ed­u­ca­tion news­let­ter. And she had been fas­ci­nated by An­nette Gor­don-Reed’s book “The Hem­ingses of Mon­ti­cello: An Amer­i­can Fam­ily.” The three de­cided to tackle Hem­ings’ story, re­ly­ing partly on an 1873 ac­count writ­ten by Madi­son Hem­ings about his par­ents, Thomas Jef­fer­son and Sally Hem­ings.

At first they just worked on a poem. But when Hai­ley at­tended an event that in­cluded a spo­ken word per­for­mance set to mu­sic they ex­panded their vi­sion.

The re­sult was a poem that opens with Lan­drum and Hoover, dressed in black, recit­ing in the voice of Madi­son Hem­ings, “If my mother’s life were a song I’d play it in a mi­nor key / With ac­ci­den­tal ma­jors thrown in she / Kept singing along for dear life / Her time and her skin only brought her strife.” Hai­ley ac­com­pa­nies with a haunt­ing vi­o­lin melody.

Stu­dents who wanted to be con­sid­ered for a stage per­for­mance had to sub­mit a video to West Char­lotte fac­ulty.

The fac­ulty de­cided they had two out­stand­ing per­for­mances: this one and a piece on poet Phyl­lis Wheat­ley, done by Hai­ley’s twin sis­ter, Kam­ryn, and class­mate Niya Fri­day. The stu­dents say the teach­ers let them de­cide which would be sub­mit­ted to the Gilder Lehrman In­sti­tute. Kam­ryn Hai­ley says her sis­ter’s pas­sion for Hamil­ton made that group the log­i­cal choice.

SHOW TIME

Even that didn’t guar­an­tee a shot at the Belk The­ater stage. Twen­tytwo schools sub­mit­ted their best pieces. West Char­lotte was one of five Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg schools in the mix, along with Garinger, Hard­ing, West Meck and Vance.

The in­sti­tute chose 14 to per­form at the Nov. 1 event. The West Char­lotte trio was the only one from CMS. And they would close out the stu­dent per­for­mances.

By then, hours of re­hearsal at home and at school had made all three con­fi­dent in their roles. As the young per­form­ers ar­rived they were greeted by “Hamil­ton” en­sem­ble cast mem­ber Tyler McKen­zie, who grad­u­ated from Cen­tral Academy of Tech­nol­ogy & Arts in Union County.

Donovan Moonie from Hunter Huss High in Gas­to­nia de­liv­ered a pow­er­ful rap on the slave ex­pe­ri­ence.

Dor­rian Perkins and Ma­son Gumbs from North Forsyth High used a ukulele to ac­com­pany their song about the Bos­ton Tea Party. Stu­dents were danc­ing in their seats and cheer­ing as the duo chanted their cho­rus of “Dump the tea, dump the tea, dump the tea – Dump it!”

Fi­nally it was time for West Char­lotte. As they took the stage Hai­ley thought she was calm, though she saw her fin­gers shak­ing as she placed them on her vi­o­lin. Then she played a few notes and “it felt like it was me and my friends.”

Af­ter that came the fun part: hear­ing cast mem- bers an­swer stu­dent ques­tions, scram­bling for a quick lunch and com­ing back to watch the show. Hai­ley, Hoover and Lan­drum left beam­ing.

Bai­ley, the his­tory in­sti­tute official who helped give birth to EduHam, says the pro­gram has three goals: In­spire stu­dents to learn about the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. Teach them how to re­search and an­a­lyze doc­u­ments.

“Lastly,” he said, “I wanted them to walk away with an ex­pe­ri­ence they would never for­get.”

Mis­sion ac­com­plished.

LORENA RIOS-TREVINO [email protected]

From left, West Char­lotte’s Kaycee Hai­ley, Shaz­aria Hoover and Kaliyah Lan­drum per­formed a piece about Sally Hem­ings on the “Hamil­ton” stage, then got to see the tour­ing show, as part of the EduHam ini­tia­tive.

LORENA RIOS-TREVINO [email protected]

West Char­lotte High’s Kaycee Hai­ley played vi­o­lin in her group’s pre­sen­ta­tion for EduHam.

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