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by Lawrence Blackwell

Meet our youth where they are.  This has become the guiding mantra for many of the community partners, schools, and programs I work with in Memphis.  It is a core principle from which we grow our programs at Hattiloo Theatre.   But what does meeting them where they are  mean?  Where are we meeting them (physically, mentally, and emotionally), what are we trying to lead them to, and what does it require from our programs and facilitators to engage our youth in meaningful ways?  Most importantly, what is our true desired outcome for the youth we serve?  At Hattiloo, our ultimate goal is to provide the youth with the tools and experiences to become agents of change, both personally and as citizens.  Our work with students from Memphis Music Institute has been one of our primary lab spaces to explore our concepts and vision.

Typically, the philosophy of meeting students where they are is rooted in education; we attempt to place the student at the center of the learning process by understanding where they are on their learning trajectory as well as understanding their social, cultural, and emotional needs.  Once that understanding is established, the teacher or facilitator can provide educational instruction that addresses their needs in real time.  Some of our programs at Hattiloo, such as Write On! Speak Out! – a spoken word mentoring program for high school-aged students sponsored by the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation – are designed to promote college readiness which allows us to utilize this model.   However, the majority of our programs focus on developing, uplifting, and supporting the individual by validating their cultural and lived experiences.  From this perspective, we try to meet students were they are by shifting the goal from educational success to personal and communal success.

A large portion of our youth programs work with students of color living in high-crime, low-income communities where gang violence and drugs are prevalent.  Education and dreams of a future life often takes a back seat to surviving the day.  For many of our students it is their mother, father, uncle, brother, or cousin that is involved in the illicit lifestyle.  While it is my hope that all of our students avoid choosing this lifestyle, I cannot simply tell them that these life choices are wrong.  Doing so could demonize their community members who are involved in these life choices, devalue their life experiences, and force a divide between them and their community.  I often hear stories from my elders recalling the time before integration when black communities were economically, educationally, and morally diverse.  Interestingly, they often lament integration, believing black flight from traditionally black communities as a root cause for much of the plight in our disadvantaged black communities.   This is a driving factor behind our decision to meet students where they are and not to critique, judge, or diminish their communities.  We want these students to cherish their community and culture, and engage their communities in their way.

Our work with Memphis Music Institute has helped us define a methodology for this type of work.  Memphis is rich in musical history; it has a claim as a birthplace of blues, rock and roll, and other genres of music.   Unfortunately, the historical and cultural challenges many of the black artists faced go untold.  With MMI, we were able to create our Musical Theatre Initiative.  Generally, this program was designed to teach students of color how to create musical theatre pieces.  But more specifically, we were introducing these students to the histories of their communities, the trials and tribulations people of color have faced in Memphis, and finally, tactics people have used to overcome.

Over three years, MMI students have created several performance pieces that highlight the lives of Memphis musicians from the perspective of their communities.  The students began by researching Memphis musicians such as Memphis Minnie, 8-Ball & MJG, and Isaac Hayes.  Secondly, they interviewed people in their family and their neighborhood about their engagement with the musician or the music.  Finally, the students  created a performance piece by adapting the life stories of a specific musician in a contemporary setting focused on their community.  In one piece, a group of black students studied the life of Memphis Minnie, one of the first female Blues singers.  During their investigation the students discovered that Memphis Minnie worked as a prostitute as she developed her career as a singer.  In their adapted contemporary piece they changed Memphis Minnie from a prostitute to a drug dealer in Frasier who used her income to create a different life for herself and change her community by buying houses to support her neighborhood.  We presented this piece to youth in North Memphis.  Several of the youth in the audience commented that they were surprised that we did a piece that did not vilify drug dealers, but rather empowered their dreams.

As we continue our work, we are committed to meeting our youth were they are, but we are always cognizant of where we are trying to lead them.  Educational success is always a pillar of our mission, but at our core we are dedicated to empowering our youth with the tools and experiences to express their lived conditions and to create change where and when they see fit.

Lawrence Blackwell is the Director of Education and Programs at Hattiloo Theatre.   As a scholar and performing artist, Lawrence has created, directed, and performed over twenty pieces that explore African American and Latino American culture.  He has directed works including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Radio Golf, If Scrooge Were a Brother, Blues for an Alabama Sky, and A Star of Yoruba-Reimagined that he wrote, directed, and choreographed in Havana, Cuba.