I’m going to write those words again and I want you to catch the first thing that pops into your mind and hold onto it for a minute.
Maybe you have an impression from the nightly news – an impression that is a little less than pretty. Maybe you drive through there on your way to and from Highland and have noticed the neighborhood’s affinity for orange buildings. (They aren’t joking around ya’ll. They love their orange. They wear it and paint it with pride.) Maybe you avoid driving through there at all, because of something you’ve heard or something you fear.
Hopefully, you know that within the walls of the community called Orange Mound dwells an incredibly rich history. This community, one-hundred and twenty-six years old, was the first place in America where African-Americans could own a home. If you talk with long-time residents, chances are, they will reminisce about how it was a “promised land.” Lifelong resident, Mary Mitchell (who I call the “Queen of Orange Mound,” because of her endless passion to share the neighborhood’s history and value), always says, “This place is sacred.” To hear her say this is to believe it. It is truth.
I work as the Director of Outreach and Education at Theatre Memphis. For the past two years, through the gracious support by ArtsMemphis, I have had the great privilege of working in the community of Orange Mound. Theatre Memphis is one of five arts organizations working in the neighborhood. The others are Blues City Cultural Center, New Ballet Ensemble, Visible Community Music School, and PRIZM Ensemble. Our charge is to use art to address the needs of the neighborhood, and first and foremost, to work with the community and not for them.
What do I think of when I see the words, “Orange Mound?” I think of a group of people who are proud of their history and choose hope for their future. I think of a community that has welcomed me like family, despite the fact that my skin and my past look different from theirs. Most of all, I think of the young people that I am charged with the mission of teaching, but teach me every time I enter a room with them.
We specifically partner with Melrose High School and RedZone Ministries. RedZone is a haven for high school students in the neighborhood and helps them do everything from find a job to apply for college to getting food in their stomachs to just giving them loads of love. I am constantly in awe of their commitment, love, and compassion. They are superheroes. They are rock stars.
Our most recent collaboration with Melrose/RedZone is a performance group called, SPEAK. SPEAK is a performance group that tackles social issues with art. These students rap, write poetry, dance, and possess all sorts of amazing talents that most of us can only dream of. They have rhythm in their bones and voices that must be heard. All they need are open ears that are ready to listen.
Thanks to Melrose English teacher, Michael Schulte, and his idea for a poetry slam celebrating Poetry Month, Melrose High School students are looking forward to an evening solely devoted to speaking their minds. We are handing them a mic and giving them a room full of ears in our first ever Drop the Mic, Poetry Slam. SPEAK will host the event. All Melrose students are welcome to submit a poem to perform. You have a chance to hear it all. Trust me, you will not be disappointed. You will experience more energy than you know what to do with. You will leave inspired, challenged, and amazed by the young artists you encounter.
Drop the Mic, Poetry Slam will be on Thursday, April 28, at New Hope Baptist Church (2731 Enterprise Ave.) at 6:30 pm.
If you want a little taste of what these amazing students can do, check out the new mixtape by Streets Music Factory. Three of our super talented SPEAK members (Reggie Hawkins, Deunta Jeffries, and Jonathan McGowan) are featured on it and have a new music video as well.
Leslie Barker is the Director of Outreach and Education at Theatre Memphis. She received her B.A. from William Carey University and her M.F.A. in Directing from the University of Memphis. Through her job at Theatre Memphis, she has the privilege of working with incredible young artists all over Memphis, particularly in the Orange Mound community with the performance group, SPEAK. Leslie has collaborated with many wonderful Memphis arts and community organizations including the Grizzlies Team Up Mentoring Program, RedZone Ministries, Voices of the South, the Caritas Village, Chatterbox Audio Theater, Rhodes College, and Blues City Cultural Center.