alabama

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

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

My 3 Things - June 2017

(The My 3 Things FAQ.)

1. LISTENING: Toni Childs "Don't Walk Away" from the album Union

This was the hit song from Child's 1988, Grammy-nominated album Union, one of my desert island discs. 

Not going to lie, I haven't listened to this record in five years or so. Suddenly, it resurfaced in my life; I've been on a scavenger hunt for music that captures my hopes and dreams for the Death Album.

Is it too much to hear new music from Toni? A set of songs that would do her incredible, indelible voice justice? I hope not. 

PS: 80s video awesomeness alert!
 

2. SEEING: Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield at the Annenberg Space for Photog. in LA
In so many ways, this show is not for the faint of heart.

It unsettled and disturbed me. Upon leaving, my soul felt coated in an unsavory residue that lingered for days. And yet, I am so glad I saw those pictures, read those words, glimpsed those worlds.

Greenfield's show overwhelms and overstuffs the cold, corporate corner in Century City that is the Annenberg Space for Photography. Parking and finding your way there is your first challenge. As you emerge from the concrete rabbit warren of the enormous glass and steel office complex into the faux-park courtyard, you're likely to see caterers rolling tables on their edges setting up for a corporate event and a clutch of famous bloggers-slash-social media personalities sharing meatballs and fries (the offices of CAA loom over you after all) at the luxury bistro-slash-coffee shop that caters to this microcosm. It's all very surreal. And you've not even seen the show yet.

Finally, you enter the Annenburg and that's when the cultural vertigo really sets in.

The photos are large, colorful, utterly absorbing. This is a master documentarian at work -- there is humor here. There is also restraint (on the part of the photographer, not -- let's be clear -- on the part of the subjects). The first-person interviews that accompany almost every image are gripping, pared-down but packing a huge punch; the short films and projections are mesmerizing.

Considered the "preeminent chronicler of consumerism and youth culture," Greenfield stares unflinchingly into the gaping, insatiable maw of our materialist, status-chasing, money-driven, "mine is bigger than yours" culture. She leaves no corner of the collective psyche unexamined: here's Tupac losing $10k in ten minutes in Las Vegas; there's a woman spread-eagled on a plastic surgeon's operating table getting everything that can be lifted and tucked lifted and tucked all at the same time; here's a stripper crawling on the floor of an Atlanta club, scooping up armloads of dollar bills thrown by a patron who admits he can't afford to make it rain the way he just did. From Russian oligarchs to Chinese billionaires to kids in LA who just can't stop spending on sneakers and jeans, Greenfield swan dives into "the influence of affluence over the last 25 years."  

This is important work. She's observing and examining the inescapably powerful forces bending all of our realities every single day -- consumerism, comparison, advertisement, social media, and the manufactured need for more, bigger, shinier, faster, newer, younger, now. She captures outrageous ambition with the same evenness of tone as she does moments of quiet and reflection and contrition. There's heart-wrenching humor here as well.

So what about that residue I felt on my soul?

Caused by the complexity of the subject matter no doubt, and by the ways in which Greenfield does her work so well that there's room for me to see myself in all of this, to see the ways in which I'm complicit. 

I'll leave the last words to one of my favorite people on the planet, the English musician, composer, record producer, singer, writer, visual artist, and shit-stirrer Brian Eno: "Lauren Greenfield's photographs range from hilarious to terrifying, sometimes in the same image. The images are unjudgemental -- dystopian shock and awe somewhere at the end of Empire -- and yet moving: she makes it personal. It could have been me."

The show is on until August 13, 2017.

 

3. WATCHING: Whitman, Alabama -- the documentary film
Having just come from the Black Belt of Alabama, the voices melodious and measured still ringing in my ears, watching a few episodes of this project helped cure me of a fraction of my homesickness.

Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall was born in Ethiopia and raised in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Haiti. She's part Chinese and part White. No wonder she's interested in identity.

She created the project Whitman, Alabama as "an experiment using documentary (film) and poetry to reveal the threads that tie us together—as people, as states, and as a nation."

For the last two years, she's been driving all over Alabama meeting people and inviting them to face the camera and share themselves through the words of Walt Whitman's “Song of Myself” -- a vital piece of American art and an artifact of our American project. 

This project is genius. Everything is here: the rural, the urban, the lost, the found, the high, the low, the old, the young, the free, the caged, the restrained, the superfluous. 

This particular episode will crack you open.

I see so much humanity and goodness in these faces, in these words, in this whole idea. I swoon and find myself falling in love with America again.

My 3 Things - April 2017

(What is this thing called My 3 Things? Find out in the FAQ.)

1. LISTENING: Jimmy Scott singing “Nothing Compares 2 U”
One of my favorite singers singing a song by one of my favorite songwriters. Scott’s voice is a dangerous drug. “Careful,” I say to myself. “This could wreck you.” It almost always does.

2. CREATING: A theater workshop for kids in Alabama -- May 20-27, 2017
In early 2010, I volunteered at a small, bootstrapped, after-school program for kids in rural Wilcox County, Alabama called BAMA Kids. I’d show up at 3:15p just before the kids came tumbling out of the school bus and 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 little context about this corner of the world: At the time of the 2010 census, the 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. Both the Wilcox County middle and high schools were designated “failing schools” by the 2017 Alabama Department of Education.

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.

In March 2012, 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/love fest.

I’ve decided it’s time to do it again.

This May (about seven weeks from now), come hell or high water, I am sending seven actors from Zara Aina back down to Alabama to work with the BAMA kids.

I’ve already raised $2750 of the $4000 I need to do this.

Please help me raise the other $1250. (Four thousand is the cost of getting the NYC actors there and back, groceries for a week, props, teaching tools, etc.)

You can make a fully tax-deductible donation by clicking here before May 17. 

If you’ve already donated — a big huge thank you hug to you! Your support and belief in this act of creation means so much to me, to the kids, and to the actors. 

I can't wait to share with you what the kids create this May!

 

3. PLANNING FOR: Tall Ship Parade in Québec City in July 2017 for Canada's B-day!
I like big boats and I cannot lie.

Sail boats, that is.

As you know, I spent last June sailing around the island of Svalbard on the Dutch Barquentine 'Antigua.' On her decks and down below in my little cabin, I worked and re-worked many of the songs you'll hear on my next album. This June, I'll help my Dad sail his boat from the Chesapeake Bay to Mt. Desert Island, Maine. My guitar will accompany me on this adventure as well.

A panoramic I took onboard Antigua. Sailing off the coast of Svalbard.

This July, I am seriously considering making a trip to Québec City to take in the Tall Ship Parade in honor of Canada's 150th Birthday. 

Called "a beauty pageant from the age of sail," this spectacle is something you don't see every day. Usually these kinds of tall ship get-togethers only happen in cases like this -- when a country throws itself a birthday party.

The ships and their crew will be converging on stone-walled, cobbled street-ed Old Québec, a city thick with European seafaring history. Though the parade will visit a handful of other ports in Canada, this is the only place the entire fleet of more than 40 tall ships will rendezvous.

This is all part of a great trans-Atlantic race of 7000 nautical miles, happening over the course of five months in six countries. Once they fête Canada, the ships will race to the finish line at Le Havre, France. (The race starts now -- April 13-16 -- in the London borough of Royal Greenwich, Britain.)

If I miss this gathering, can I really wait the nine more years until the US turns 250 and maybe there will be a gathering like this in New York or Boston harbor? I don't know. Nine years is a long time and I'm dying everyday. 

They aren't called the "cathedrals of the sea" for nothing.