Mark Cottman understands what it takes for Baltimore youth to succeed and he is determined help them. As a visual artist and comedian, he has made his way in and out of many circles, so it was a no-brainer when he decided to host a series of art shows from his gallery with a portion of the proceeds going to local programs and organizations.

Given his love for comedy and the legendary funnyman Richard Pryor, Cottman decided to partner with comedienne and actress Rain Pryor, daughter of the late funnyman, to raise money for her upcoming theatre production featuring students from ConneXions Leadership Arts Academy. The academy is a small charter middle/high school housed in the once troubled Lemmel Middle School building in West Baltimore. On Feb. 25, Cottman will host an open reception at his gallery featuring Pryor, comedian Koli Tengella along with acoustic guitarist and former member of revered R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass’ band Karter Jaymes.

“It’s very filling to be able to, in any small way, do something positive for these young people,” said Cottman during a visit to ConneXions. “Just to be able to create art is wonderful, just to be able to do something for young people is wonderful.”

Cottman took the time to sit in on one of Pryor’s theatre classes to observe the young thespians in action. For clarification, Pryor briefly interjects between readings to explain passages as her hand full of students take turns reading August Wilson’s stage play Gem of the Ocean. “I really wanted to teach them about themselves and the Diaspora. His other plays are great, but I think this really depicts our ancestral journey really well,” said Pryor.

ConneXions aims to empower Baltimore youth and cultivate arts awareness and culture. The school engages youth with diverse forms expression including dance and visual art. Just by walking down the hallways of the school, their mission is evident as the sound of African drums permeate the walls of Pryor’s class room. The noise doesn’t bother the students. They are at ease.

For some students, this learning environment has improved their self-awareness and a sense of personal responsibility.

“I’m very proud of myself. I take an extra step forward into pushing myself, so that way…when I get older I can know what to do,” said student Terry Benson Jr. “Because we need to stand together, that’s what we’re not realizing.

Cottman looks on and is pleased with what the youth in the performing arts class have shared. He only hopes that more adults would take heed to their efforts.

“You can’t grow a strong tree from the branches down; you have to grow it from the roots up. So it starts with the people, said Cottman. “We have to take this into our own hands and make a change to care for these children and not let these children go into life without…opportunities.”

Bobby Marvin

Special to the AFRO