Last Thursday I met 46 bright, energetic, eager to explore, fifth-grade students attending Hyde Park Elementary School. For the next two months, I have the pleasure of teaching Ms. Lawson's and Ms. Bergman's classes my craft as we learn about James Weldon Johnson.
The students began the process of becoming great actors by reciting our actor's creed. They stretched their bodies; and then they became aware of every part, imagining they were a small insect traveling through every limb. They learned how to begin controlling their voices with articulation exercises like "Five frantic frogs fled from fifty fierce fishes" and "Bake big batches of bitter brown bread." And the students used their minds by imagining they were a sixty-year-old woman. "How do her legs feel?" "Can she see clearly?" "How does her voice sound coming out of you?"
The student actors then practiced being great audience members as I performed for them as a particular sixty-year-old woman, Helen Louise Johnson. (Afterwards, we read the original script together as a class.) Mrs. Johnson was the mother of James Weldon Johnson. And oh, was she proud of her son! She had every right to be. He grew up to do great things. But before he grew up to write "Lift Every Voice and Sing"; before he was a principal, lawyer, newspaper publisher and editor, poet, book author, Broadway play/songwriter, diplomat, leader of the NAACP and college professor -- James Weldon Johnson was a child. He was like the students in Ms. Lawson and Ms. Bergman's classes -- bright, energetic, eager to explore -- growing up in the city of Jacksonville, Florida. I can't wait to introduce the students to this James Weldon Johnson, and I can't wait to introduce you to the brilliant student actors at Hyde Park Elementary School in the upcoming weeks.