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Theatre Performances Shine Spotlight on Cultural Diversity, Racism and Civil Rights Movement


AYITI: Stories and Songs from Haiti

This December, KRESA’s Education for the Arts (EFA) department hosted its first live performance since February of 2020. The hiatus was due to the many COVID-19 restrictions and cancellations, making this event a much-anticipated return to live theatre. The audience consisted of Kalamazoo County students ranging from kindergarten to third grade. Attendance was reduced to approximately half of the normal capacity to assist with social distancing criteria. The excitement was audible as the elementary students gasped and giggled upon entering the doors of Miller Auditorium as they walked single file down the aisles to take their seats with their teachers. 

The debut EFA event, a concert entitled AYITI: Stories and Songs from Haiti, featured Inez Barlatier, a Miami native of Haitian descent, along with her family band. The upbeat and interactive musical performance encouraged student participation as they were invited to sing, clap and move to the beat while learning about Haitian culture, history and the Creole language.  

Deb Strickland, Education for the Arts (EFA) Program Coordinator, received anonymous feedback from the performances hosted by the EFA department. Strickland shared some of the teachers’ comments: 

  • “It was wonderful to be in a new environment that most students had never experienced. The music and costumes were fabulous.  Our district has very little cultural or racial diversity, so this was just what we needed.” - Tobey Elementary 
  • “They were so wonderful! They were teachers, and masters at inspiring children and keeping control at the same time. In addition to being fabulous musicians! Thank you so much for making it possible for us to go!” - Parkwood/Upjohn Elementary 
  • “I hope that my students understand there is a great big world around them with many different races, traditions, and ideas.” - Tobey Elementary 
  • “My students were inspired and energized by this performance. I hope they carry that excitement into their own performances.” - Woods Lake Elementary 


In addition to the entertainment and educational aspects of the show, one teacher acknowledged the positive effect that simply being able to attend an in-person show during the pandemic era had on the teachers and students. 

“It was so great to be back in the theater with a live performance,” remarked one teacher from Woods Lake Elementary. “My students will remember this performance because of the content and their interaction with the audience.”  

EFA Program Coordinator Deb Strickland shared the same sentiment regarding the long-awaited in-person event. 

“There was a palpable feeling of joy and connectedness amongst the students, the teachers and the artists,” said Strickland. “What a beautiful performance to spark that much-needed feeling of community during these challenging times.” 

“You can tell the students needed it,” added Strickland, “My soul needed it too." 


Jabari Dreams of FreedomAnother recent event hosted by the EFA department shone the spotlight on the important subjects of racism and the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Jabari Dreams of Freedom was written and produced by award-winning playwright and actress Nambi E. Kelley. The performance was held in Comstock Auditorium, the venue which was chosen as the premiere kickoff of the play’s national tour.  

This time, the audience was slightly older, ranging from third to eighth-graders. Students got a front-row seat into the inner world of the main character, Jabari, a ten-year-old African American boy who struggled to cope with the intense fear he experiences after witnessing his young friend become a victim of police violence. The performance took the audience on a historical journey through Jabari’s dreams, where he meets children from the Civil Rights era, including Ruby Bridges, Claudette Colvin, and later, a childhood version of his hero, Barack Obama. The historical characters were examples of bravery in the face of adversity and fear, and showed Jabari that courage is possible, and required, to stand up in the important fight against racism.  

Jabari Dreams of Freedom

As with the previously described performance, the EFA Department also received anonymous feedback from teachers about Jabari Dreams of Freedom: 

When asked what impact the play had on their students, one teacher remarked, “They were faced with the idea that not everyone is treated fairly.” Others shared some of the key concepts that would be discussed with their students as a result of watching the play, including fair and equal treatment and history, empathy and knowledge of Civil Rights issues.  

Both EFA-hosted productions creatively combined entertainment with teaching, brought diversity into the views of young people, and taught about important subject matter in an engaging way that the students and teachers seemed to appreciate and will remember. 

These activities are funded in part by the Michigan Arts and Culture Council and the Michigan Humanities Council