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Community, Confidence, and Culture: Built by the Crosstown Youth Theater Company

Lately, when Jazmin Miller leads the Crosstown Youth Theater Company in a production, it starts by leaving her phone in a mailbox at a home. She drives around midtown Memphis and the the neighborhoods north of Crosstown—from house to apartment, duplex to condo— sanitizing the phone, passing it off, waiting for students to record their parts for video compilations, and then on to the next stop. 

Theater in a pandemic is different, but no less essential, and that’s certainly true for the young actors of the CYTC, many of whom have grown up in the group. Jazzy spoke with us about her determination to keep the students involved, even when the pandemic made it incredibly difficult. “Conceptually, ‘theater’ is something we all know how to do. We mimic and imitate our parents and caregivers, and oftentimes, before we learn how to talk (i.e. waving hello, blowing kisses, etc.). And storytelling exists in every culture around the world. So, how can an an art form that is so entrenched in our nature as human beings not be emotionally and spiritually ‘essential’?”

The group misses their normal performances in their schools and local community centers. But the video pieces they’ve produced from home on that shared phone (to ensure that everyone could participate with good quality videos) have continued to do what theater has always done for people: give us glimpses of different experiences, new possibilities, and deeper feelings. 

While the methods of the moment are different, the vision of CYTC has been the same since 2014, when Jazzy first began talking to families in the Crosstown area about her plans for a theater experience that would give students an artistic experience that would contribute to everyday skills. From the beginning, the families were sold on the most practical elements of theater: performing for an audience is practice for public speaking; inhabiting a character that is different from you is an exercise in empathy; writing plays alongside other contributors, learning how to both write and collaborate. 

This piece was created by the CYTC to honor IMAKEMADBEATS (local artist James Dukes), founder of UNAPOLOGETIC. They explored the fable format as they celebrated Dukes’ musicality.

As the CYTC began to take shape, it did so as a member-driven effort. The students are empowered to lead their learning and determine the direction of the CYTC. Jazzy explains, “Before we begin to create a story, we always have a roundtable with the older students in the program. It is important to us that we develop stories around important topics and issues in our communities and begin building stories from having a conversation. We discuss everything from setting goals to determining our ‘intended audience.’ Sometimes, the conversation goes in a direction I don’t expect, nor prefer! But theater is collaborative. And in creating with the group, if things turn out exactly how you expect, you must be doing something wrong.” 

But theater is collaborative. And in creating with the group, if things turn out
exactly how you expect, you must be doing something wrong.
—Jazmin Miller, Crosstown Theater Director

The students develop the themes for each play they create and perform. With assistance from staff members and skilled volunteers, they experience playwriting, make design choices, and participate in casting. Theater professionals hold on-site workshops to share their professional backgrounds and experiences, while also helping the young artists shape their work with creative feedback. 

Over the last seven years, several students have grown up in the CYTC program, becoming leaders and mentors to younger students. The graduating seniors decided that a tribute should be made to their creative communities here in Memphis, using spoken word, song, and documentary footage from their previous in-person performances.

The result of all of this, as with many successful theater groups, is a microcosm of strong community. Children learn by doing, and from their elders—and everyone creates something together in an atmosphere of support and respect. And don’t forget the plays themselves: works of art that foster community as we viewers engage with our own imaginations and with the artists who present the work. 

In this piece, Nic Allen, a longtime member of the Crosstown Youth Theater Company, performs a spoken word piece exploring feelings on skin color, and the realities of being young and Black. Thanks to another pandemic-driven innovation, he’s accompanied by the Kalerwe Kids of Uganda.

In one of the silver linings of the pandemic, you can now engage with the work of the CYTC from the comfort of your own home. Take a moment to watch the videos above, and to go here to watch others (look for the ones labeled Crosstown Youth!). And as we round the corner on this season of COVID-19, consider keeping the CYTC on your radar. Whether you keep up with their videos, attend a future production, or support the work they’re doing in another way, we promise that this community of young artists will be a beautiful addition to your life in Memphis.

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