By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO
When Anacostia High School students Kelli Johnson and Brenda McKinney took the stage at the Kennedy Center to rap about the Boston Tea Party prior to watching “Hamilton,” McKinney called on the audience of more than 2,000 teens to help the duo overcome stage fright.
“The first thing I did on stage was say ‘Anacostia, ya’ll get lit,’ McKinney told the AFRO. “I said, ‘Please ya’ll’ and they helped me.”
Dontrell Parson of Phelps ACE High School was one of the students chosen to perform at the Kennedy Center after completing his coursework and creative component of the ‘Hamilton’ curriculum offered in high schools in 14 cities around the country. (Courtesy Photo)
McKinney and Johnson, both 16, were two of 4,300 high-school students from around the region who descended on the Kennedy Center September 12 and 13 to watch the widely acclaimed musical which details the life and times of Alexander Hamilton, America’s first treasurer.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, “Hamilton” producers and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and his family collaborated to create a curriculum, which required the kids to study the Founding Era, pick a person or event to research, create an original performance based on the person or event and perform it at school.
If the students successfully completed the program, they got to see “Hamilton,” a Tony-Award winning musical that has a diverse, youthful cast featuring many Blacks and Hispanics in prominent roles, and to meet the cast. In the five years since the program launched, it has reached 250,000 students in 14 cities around the United States, said Jim Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
“The point is for the kids to take ownership of the Founding Era, of the people they care about, the events, put them in their own words, their own music idiom and put them out there, put their voice into the mix,” Basker told the AFRO. “So, we hope this carries over into a whole appreciation for caring about the Founding Era, the issues it raises which are very much of our time — immigration why one vote matters.”
The best of the best performed their works at the Kennedy Center before an audience of their teachers, peers and others.
Dontrell Parson, 17, of Phelps ACE High School performed a poetry slam about Richard Allen, a former slave and Black activist who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“He’s so underground, no one really knows about him,” Parson said. “He hid slaves underground in the church basement and was a leader of … the first mutual aid society for newly freed Blacks. It just put me onto this mindset of like, ‘What I can do?,’ so that’s why I chose him.”
The musical sucked the kids in from the first notes. They hung on actors’ every word and started singing along to the music before realizing they weren’t supposed to. They erupted into loud cheers when Alexander Hamilton introduced himself, couldn’t stop laughing when King George III told the revolutionaries they’d be back, picked sides during Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s debates and expressed shock and sorrow when two prominent figures were killed in duels.
All told, the program cost $345,000, money that was secured from Google.org and philanthropists Sophie Lynn and David Frederick, according to Susan Zuckerman, director of development for Gilder Lehrman Institute & Hamilton Education Program.
That brought the cost down to $10 per student — tickets were well over $100 during the musical’s D.C. run.
But $10 was still too much money for 856 students, according to Stephanie Lilley, a local education consultant. So, she convinced Walmart to not only underwrite the $10 but also to provide lunches and transportation for all of the students.
“They’re not staying home over $10,” Lilley said. “They’re just not.”