Inspiration

BAMA Kids FAQ a.k.a what's this thing you do making art in rural Alabama with a group of kids?

In early 2010, I volunteered for four months at a small, bootstrapped, after-school program for kids in rural Wilcox County, Alabama.

It’s called BAMA Kids.

I’d show up at 3:15p, just before the kids came tumbling out of the school buses and I’d spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening with them helping and fixing — helping with homework, fixing a broken basketball hoop, helping tie a shoe, fixing a snack.

I became reacquainted with 4th and 5th grade math. I instigated drawing challenges and coloring contests. I did a lot of just being there and showing up, day after day. As Zadie Smith wrote, "Time is how you spend your love."

A scene from the shadow puppet show we created with the BAMA Kids on our first trip in March 2012.

A scene from the shadow puppet show we created with the BAMA Kids on our first trip in March 2012.

A little context about this corner of our country

From Wikipedia…

“At the time of the 2010 census, there were 11,670 people residing in the county. 72.5% were Black or African American, 26.8% White, 0.1% Native American, and 0.6% were Hispanic or Latino.

The median income for a household in the county was $16,646, and the median income for a family was $22,200. Males had a median income of $26,216 versus $17,274 for females. The per capita income for the county was $10,903. About 36.10% of families and 39.90% of the population were below the poverty line, including 48.40% of those under age 18 and 32.10% of those age 65 or over.he median income for a household in Wilcox County was $16,646. About 48% of people under the age of 18 live below the poverty line.

All public schools in the county are operated by the Wilcox County School District. It is also served by one private school, Wilcox Academy, founded in 1970 as a segregation academy. The public schools are effectively all-Black. Both the Wilcox County Schoo District schools were designated “failing schools” by the 2017 Alabama Department of Education.”

Let these realities about Wilcox County sink in — the population is 72% black / 26% white, 48% of kids live below the poverty line, the public schools in the county are failing. And then realize that this is a very rural area. High speed internet is not a given. Access to a public library or any other public social service means you have to have a car or a person in your family who has a car. That’s not a given, either.


Enter BAMA kids

BAMA Kids is the only program of its kind in this community. Started in 1993 by a group of volunteers and concerned parents, its goal is to give kids a safe and fun place to go at the end of the school day. Here, they learn, grow, and feel the love and support of positive role models and mentors. BAMA Kids get the encouragement they need to make good decisions and live healthy, successful lives.

Adding a few Broadway stars to the mix, or: 1 + 1 = 3

In March 2013, I invited the theater group Zara Aina (ZA) to come down to Alabama and work with the BAMA Kids for a week.

Zara Aina is a Malagasy (Madagascar) phrase that means "share life." Started by two Broadway actors and based in NYC, its mission is to use theater, storytelling, and performance to help at-risk children to recognize their potential. It was a no-brainer to unite these two awesome organizations. I saw the opportunity and made it happen. 

In one week, the ZA actors and I collaborated with the BAMA Kids to create an amazing piece of theater — a shadow puppet musical of sorts. The kids wrote the lyrics to our songs. I wrote the music. The ZA crew coached the kids to create everything else -- the story, the acting, the costumes, the set, the shadow puppets, etc. It was busy and fun with a lot of goofing around and improv-ing. 

Here are just a few scenes from that week ...

After a long week of creating and rehearsing, on a spring Sunday afternoon, the kids put on a spirited public performance of their show at the middle school!

Parents came and cheered. The local radio station broadcast from under a big oak tree outside. Someone set up a barbecue and after the show there were ribs and chicken for all.

It was an unqualified success and love fest.

And that was just the beginning

This little project of mine has always been a “we” thing.

I couldn’t have started it without Ms. Threadgill and Ms. Hives — the lifeblood of BAMA Kids. I couldn’t have created a week of arts for the kids without Lucas Caleb Rooney, Bryce Pinkham and the whole Zara Aina team being a thing that existed in the world and the kind of people who say “HELL YES” to just such adventures! And I couldn’t have done it without YOU. Yes, you.

Though I’ve personally spent hours and hours of heart-time and head-time planning and creating the connections that allow these trip be successful, it has been the financial generosity of my fans and friends that have made the four-trips-and-counting happen. Together we’ve raised over $25,000 to create art and change kids lives in Wilcox County, Alabama.

The video below attempts to capture what we do down there. Watch it and multiply what you feel by 100. And you get a sense of what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and what more there is to do.

A video history of the magic combination of BAMA Kids and Zara Aina — going strong since 2013.

For the record and for fun here are the videos we made for our other trips to BAMA Kids:

May 2017 trip

November 2017 trip to work with the student leaders

If you’re moved by what you’ve seen so far and would like to donate, please click here.


In 2018, I wanted Ms. Sheryl and Ms. Hives to know how much we love and recognize them for their unwavering support of and years of dedication to the kids of Wilcox County.

So I reached into my own pocket and flew them to NYC to have a couple days on the town and receive The Zara Aina Award for Planet Earth’s Greatest Citizens at a Broadway star-studded event at the legendary Joe’s Pub. Here’s the celebratory video we created to kick off their night…

Javion and Shatavia, two BAMA Kids that have been with the program for close to a decade, tell the leaders of BAMA Kids, Ms. Sheryl and Ms. Hives, how much they mean to them.

I am deeply grateful for everyone who has shared this journey with me.

Onward!

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.

It turns what we have into enough, and more. 

It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. 

It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. 

It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

— Melody Beattie

To donate and help keep the BAMA Kids making theater and art with the current and future stars of Broadway and beyond, please click here.

BAMA Kids 2018 - A Bigger Dream

The lights went out at the play’s conclusion, and the packed auditorium was for the first time–silent ... for about 0.8 seconds.

Last year, with your help, I raised just over $10,000 to send the New York City actors from ZARA AINA down to Wilcox County, Alabama to create two pieces of original musical theater with the BAMA Kids.

As those of you who've been along for the ride know, this wasn't my first time making a workshop like this happen. My original trip to Alabama with the ZARA AINA crew was in 2013.

Here's the video of our very first show with the BAMA Kids.

The actors and I went down to Alabama twice in 2017: once in May and once in November.

During our May trip, we led about 30 BAMA Kids (of all ages) in a theater and storytelling workshop. In only one week's time, we helped the children write, rehearse and perform a show filled with characters, music and dance. The week ended with a public performance for the entire town on the middle school stage. A crowd of supporters -- old and new -- showed up to cheer us all on! 

It was a watershed moment for the community. But more about that in the quotation block down below. 

 

A SMALL, SECRET DREAM SEES THE LIGHT OF DAY
It's always been a secret dream of mine to create a bench of BAMA Kids student leaders, to build the momentum for our artistic work from within the ranks of the kids themselves

Finally, in 2017, I spoke that dream aloud and was able to make a start.

In November, three ZARA AINA actors and I traveled back to BAMA Kids to teach a small group of student leaders -- hand-selected by BAMA Kids founders and directors, the amazing and heroic Ms. Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews and Ms. Jacqueline Hives -- how to create their own piece of theater from scratch.

We taught these new leaders concepts of storytelling and stagecraft. They learned how to advance a creative idea on their own and how to lead rehearsals. Over the course of the weekend with them, we gave them all the insights, coaching and knowledge they could handle. 

The biggest thing we gave them was responsibility.

We tasked them to create the next original BAMA Kids show. We promised to come back down in March 2018 and help them refine and rehearse their show, incorporating the rest of the BAMA Kids into their vision. They rose to our challenge and said they would do it. 

That was 2017.

This is 2018. New year. New inspirations. Time to make good on our promise. 

A BIGGER DREAM
The BAMA kids want more.

Again and again, they ask for more instruction, more time with the actors, more ways to express themselves. They've specifically asked for more actors to coach them, for a choreographer to help them structure their dances, for a costume designer to help them realize the look of their characters and, more broadly, their show. 

They've also asked if we can take the show on the road. They dream of performing in other towns in the Black Belt of Alabama -- Monroeville and Selma. They have their eyes on the big cities of Montgomery and Birmingham. They even dream of performing their show in that other big city, the one we come from, New York City. 

"Inspiration," said the painter Agnes Martin, "is the beginning, the middle and the end."

Here's what the beginning, middle and end look like for 2018 and the BAMA Kids / ZARA AINA partnership:

  1. Two fully funded trips to Alabama in 2018 (one in March and one in November) for the actors of ZARA AINA to continue working with BAMA Kids and our corp of student leaders.
  2. At least two public performances in Wilcox County for the kids to strut their stuff and for us to continue building community engagement and support.
  3. At least one other performance in another community -- in Alabama? in New York City? We are dreaming big!

To do this, I will need to raise $15,000 by March 1, 2018. 

Will you help?

Please donate on the web here.

Our work is all about the kids. It's true. But it's also all about their town, their parents, their teachers, their neighbors.

What we've seen every time the children stage a public performance of their show is that the broader community wakes up, shows up, and reaches out to help us. 

Here is what the local paper, The Progressive Era, said about the effect the BAMA Kids performance in May 2017 had on the community: 

In that closing moment [of the BAMA Kids’ performance] ... we were suddenly able to ... rise to our feet, and wipe away tears.

They were tears of joy, proud admiration, and, most importantly, hope, only this time, that hope would last.

The evidence to back it up was right in front of us.

Evidence of an infinite potential in the hearts, minds, and voices of Wilcox County’s future was at last undeniable, and shining much brighter than just a few stage lights.

It’s in the eyes of our children. Seems almost criminal to think that potential hadn’t been there all along.
— Progressive Era, Wilcox County, Alabama 5/30/2017

With the BAMA Kids directors Ms. Threadgill and Ms. Hives, we are changing kids lives in Wilcox County, Alabama through art and song, imagination and play, responsibility and teamwork.

The infinite potential of these children is there. The inspiration is there. 

Donate now

If you'd rather write a check -- you can do so by making it out to “Zara Aina, Inc” (Please put “BAMA Kids” in the memo line).  Mail your check to:
Zara Aina, Inc.
P.O. Box 1199
New York, NY 10009

All donations are tax deductible. You will receive a receipt from Zara Aina acknowledging your donation. 

Thank you for your love and your support.

The BAMA Kids student leaders & ZARA AINA at the Community Jam

The Short The Sweet FAQ

The Short The Sweet aka TSTS

What is it?
The Short The Sweet is bi-monthly email I send to folks like you.

What's the point?
The point is to create / assemble / curate a short email that sparks a conversation or a moment of reflection or a smile.

TSTS is meant to be fluid, sometimes longer in length, sometimes shorter. It will include, say, a beautiful sentence or three from a great book, a song to dance to, or a link to an inspiring piece of art. Or it may include none of these things. We'll see ...

It is envisioned as a mini commonplace book.

(If you've been around here for a minute, you know that I liked to write a monthly email called My 3 Things. I retired it in August 2017. It was time for a change. Since then, I've been daydreaming about what comes next. TSTS is what I came up with.)

Now! Go sign up for The Short The Sweet.

What A Song Is and What A Song Does: Intro to the Death Album

On December 9, 2017, I went into the studio to begin recording my next album — affectionately nicknamed (for now) “The Death Album.” The songs chronicle my time accompanying my mom from diagnosis of ovarian cancer to death. At this point, in the midst of this multi-year project, I feel compelled to corral some of the thoughts I had and notes I made along the way.

BAMA Kids 2017

Here's what we -- you, me, Zara Aina, and the BAMA Kids created -- in May of 2017.

You made all of this happen. Every single smile, dance, hug, and cheer you see in this video is because of you. You generously gave $4750 to get the Zara Aina crew of actors down there to create a totally original, mini-musical in less than one week with these adorable, fierce, fiery, and talented kids!. 

Thank you. I am so grateful for your support of this little homegrown, I'm-gonna-do-this-no-matter-what idea of mine. 

And, yes, I am doing it again in March of 2018! The folks at Zara Aina and I are already planning. 

Please make a donation here: http://zaraaina.org/donate/bama/

"Working with the kids at BAMA Kids was a reminder that everyone needs a chance to shine and be seen. These kids are flooded with ideas and creative talent. While watching one of the kids work I literary caught myself thinking “I’ve never seen that kind of talent before.” - Todd Estrin, Zara Aina actor

Best thing I've done all week v1

The best thing I've done all week is play drums and guitar along with the album "Coltrane Plays the Blues."  The first two tunes "Blues for Elvin" and "Blues for Bechet" have totally lit me up!!! I am playing along with them multiple times a day!  Seriously!  It is like some kind of musical crack. 

Rick Considine, my drum teacher, told me to play along with that first track and once again I understand why he is the man and why I travel to Bushwick and sit in a tiny, dimly lit, freezing cold, grungy little practice closet to study with him.   Thanks, Rick.  Seriously.  Thank you for once again blowing my mind.

What makes playing along with these two tunes so great?

  • Because playing along with real music is the next best thing to playing real music.  Ha!  What I mean is, it is the next best thing to playing a gig with your heroes ... and I love playing gigs and love playing gigs with my heroes even more.
  • Because the tempos of these songs are MY JAM.  These slow tempos speak to my soul.  I get so pumped to find music that exists in this slow, spacious land of time.  Ben Webster plays a lot at this tempo and he is one of my touchstones.  Gillian Welch plays at this tempo.  Damn.  So much good and soulful music at these slow tempos. It is a kind of soul food for my ears.  Delicious.  Sweet.  Lingering. 

Check out the entire Coltrane album here.  And you tell me -- What was the best thing you did all week?