Volume 23, Number 5 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | June 11 - 17, 2010
Downtown Express photos by Aline Reynolds
Ish Islam (right) performs spoken word with a partner, both are members of Urban Word NYC, at the New York City Festival of Young Artists and Leaders.
Only the gifted need apply, festival thriving in second year
BY Aline Reynolds
Eighteen-year-old Ishmael “Ish” Islam remembers jotting down poems and rap rhymes as a youngster. Little did he know that his notebook scribblings were an art form.
“My parents were always egging me on to get involved in things, but nothing in my school was that interesting,” said Ish, a rising sophomore at Pratt Institute. Three years ago, Ish’s mother brought him to the Urban Word NYC’s annual Teen Poetry Slam competition. He instantly became hooked on spoken-word art.
“It’s been a second home for me,” he said of Urban Word NYC, which provides free writing workshops to 15,000 teens around the city.
On June 5, a blistering hot Saturday, Ish performed along with hundreds of other youths at the 2nd annual New York City Festival of Young Artists and Leaders, held on East 4th Street between Second Avenue and The Bowery.
The festival featured Urban Word NYC and 30 other community art groups that showcased their youth programs in music, theater, dance, playwriting, poetry, video and social service. Several teen bands performed a range of alternative rock, hip-hop and jazz tunes.
Downtown Art, the chief organizer of the event, is a nonprofit theater company that seeks out emerging talent among young artists from around the city. It holds between three and five productions a year in venues around Lower Manhattan. In 2011, DTA will move into its new headquarters at 70 E. 4th Street.
DTA and other youth arts groups provide a creative refuge from home and school.
The students described DTA’s Artistic Director Ryan Gilliam as tough and encouraging at the same time.
“You have to be on top of your game and know your stuff,” said Jeanne Kessira, 15, who has been performing in DTA theater productions since middle school. “You need to put time into it, outside of rehearsal.”
Kessira says she practices up to an hour everyday at home.
DTA fosters a caring community of young artists who aren’t afraid to take risks on and off the stage. Haskell Wells, 14, who attends the Institute for Collaborative Education, and has appeared in “Dream,” an adaptation of “Mid-Summer Night’s Dream,” and “Star Arguments,” a theatrical rendition of “Star Wars,” since joining DTA in 2007.
After a year of daily practice, Wells can now sight-read pieces on the trumpet, and he plans on forming his own band at DTA next year. “It was a personal triumph—I’m really feeling better about myself,” Wells said, smiling.
The youth groups provide social as well as artistic outlets. “It’s another group of friends that you don’t have to deal with the stress or craziness of school with. They really become your family,” said Marianna Quinn-Makwaia, a Stuyvesant High School graduate who has been acting and singing in DTA productions since age 11. She plans on trying her hand in songwriting, inspired by Michael Hickey, DTA’s Composer-in-Residence.
Quinn-Makwaia was part of a 17-member teen group that performed an excerpt from “The Waistmaker’s Opera,” a moving DTA 2010 production that commemorates the Uprising of the 20,000, a female garment workers’ strike that took place exactly a century ago. The heartfelt libretto, composed by Gilliam, speaks to the women’s struggles, resolve and contributions to the city prior to their tragic deaths in a fire that destroyed a large garment factory in Lower Manhattan.
“It’s just great to see her develop as a performer and as a person,” said Gregory Mehrten, a family friend and actor from the West Village who has witnessed Quinn-Makwaia’s progress over the last decade.
The New York 2 New Orleans Coalition, which had a booth at the festival, sends groups of thirty New York City high school students to New Orleans for a week at a time to prep residents for evacuations, improve damaged lots and homes and teach youth about urban agriculture and social justice.
The program has allowed New York City youth to mentor disadvantaged children from the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The teens say the Coalition has provided a hands-on learning environment for them that supplements classroom-based learning. “It adds a lot of meaning to being a high school student, which can be bland and monotonous,” said Abigail Beatty, an NY2NO organizer and high school student at City-As-School.
Third Street Music School Settlement, based in the East Village, is the nation’s oldest community music school and offers instruction in vocals, instrumentals and dance to New York City youth.
Schools such as Spruce Street, Girls Prep Lower East Side and P.S. 134 currently partner with the music school, along with 25 other schools and day care centers in Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
The Third Street School allows students such as Ruben Sonz-Barnes, 17, to experiment with new musical genres. A classically trained pianist, Bruce joined the jazz ensemble in 8th grade. He can now perform sophisticated jazz tunes such as legend Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” on stage with his peers.
“Small jazz ensemble groups are more intimate and interactive” than the large ensembles offered in the standard K-12 school, said Third Street School Jazz Coach Scott Anderson.
Youth also have a chance to explore visual art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which in 2015 will be moving to a new location in Meatpacking District. The museum’s Youth Insights Teen Programs offer semester and yearlong workshops at the Whitney in which they observe and create visual art with the help of staff and contemporary artists.
DTA receives financial support from New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency, as well as private companies and individual philanthropists.