June 15, 2021

The future is bright with our EmpowerYouth! students in it!

The 2020/21 Season marked the fourth year of Lyric Unlimited’s EmpowerYouth! program in partnership with the Chicago Urban League, and the first year in which the program was almost fully virtual. The goal of EmpowerYouth! is to encourage and guide Black Chicago teens in creating an original production to tell the story of their lives and how they deal with issues that are relevant to them. There couldn’t have been a year where self-expression, storytelling, and healing through art were more important. 

“We’re lucky that we all had a little bit of practice on what it’s like to teach and learn virtually before the start of this past school year, so it wasn’t overly jarring to jump into the ‘virtual fire,’” says Shawn Wallace, teaching artist and composer of the 2020/21 EmpowerYouth! project. 

As Osiris Khepara, this season's EmpowerYouth! acting mentor, explains, “It’s difficult to teach acting virtually, but I’m lucky that I had a couple of other friends and teaching artists who were teaching and taking acting classes on Zoom, so I relied on them to get a better understanding of best practices.” A year of virtual art-making is difficult in any context, but this year's EmpowerYouth! ensemble (the same group of students that participated in the 2019/20 school year, including a few who joined from their first years of college) was determined to not let the pandemic deter their work.

Members of the 2021/22 EmpowerYouth! ensemble during a choreography session at the Chicago Urban League.

Librettist Kristiana Rae Colón started working on this production with the 2019/20 EmpowerYouth! ensemble before the pandemic hit in March 2020. After the 2019/20 ensemble moved to the virtual space and presented an abridged final production on Zoom, Colón set out to rework and finalize this script and libretto for the start of the 2020/21 ensemble. The words were pulled from meaningful conversations, participant quotes, and journals from the EmpowerYouth! participants, encompassing what was on their minds, their immediate fears, and what they found inspiring during this difficult time. Colón drew out the general themes — superpowers, social justice, control, more educational options for creativity — that culminated in Contagion. “Kristiana is all about equity and all about sharing space with these students to make sure their voices are heard,” says Khepara. “The script is filled with things that the students want, things they’re asking for, and she wrote an amazing script.”

Contagion follows the future grads of Powerhouse Academy of the Performing and Visual Arts as they return to school after an extended summer break to discover that their school has changed. There’s a new principal spreading the “contagion” of a rigid regime, and the students must use their creative and artistic talents, and a little magic, to melt an icy heart.

The 2021/22 ensemble during a Zoom recording session of Contagion.

Once the libretto was set, Colón and Wallace created the score for the production, inspired by popular music that the participants like and even music enjoyed by Wallace's daughter (he says she keeps his ears fresh). “Everyone likes a good melody and a good groove, and they want to feel the emotion of a song — those are the constants,” says Wallace. “When your collaborator comes in with strong emotions and words, sometimes it’s best to get out of the way and let things land where they may.” 

When Wallace eventually shared his music with the participants, he said he was looking for the “head groove” from each of the kids. “They would give honest feedback and as long as it felt sincere, I knew we were on the right track,” says Wallace. “This production is a representation of who they are and where they are, so if they don’t feel it, it’s never going to work.”

The EmpowerYouth! ensemble at dance rehearsal in the Chicago Urban League parking lot.

Kephara’s main acting goal for the students was similar: to allow space for them to play. “I wanted the students to have that freedom and really understand that this was theirs and only theirs. Some of these students are just luminous in this final production, and I’m really proud of them for what they’ve created.” Eventually, once city COVID restrictions began to lift, small groups of the ensemble could gather to record their songs and film dance numbers at the Chicago Urban League. All of these elements — the libretto, music, choreography, and individual songs/raps/spoken words from the ensemble — eventually came together in a final presentation for friends and family on June 9, 2021.

Wallace, Kephara, and the other teaching artists — a group that Kephara calls a true “dream team” — all experienced incredible special moments throughout the virtual year. “I was having a vocal testing session with a student and she was a lot better at matching pitch than she thought,” says Wallace. “I love when this happens — you find that young person who never really thought they can sing, so when you tell them the truth, they don’t believe you. But when they realize it, it changes everything.”

And what did the 2020/21 EmpowerYouth! ensemble think of this year’s experience? “Everyone welcomed me with open arms.” “I most appreciated the support system from the staff!” “I finally came out of my shell and sang!” “It was so great to get out of my comfort zone.” “I’ll never forget this EmpowerYouth! community.” These are just a few comments from the ensemble. Some viewed the virtual final presentation of Contagion from their freshman or sophomore years at college and one watched from a summer teaching program in Peru, along with many recent high-school graduates with full rides to colleges like Columbia and Morehouse.

Final dance rehearsals for Contagion by members of the EmpowerYouth! ensemble.

EmpowerYouth! offers students a truly special creative opportunity that can help inspire them to pursue the arts or at least keep the arts central in their lives. “Programs like these allow students to find their own voice,” says Wallace. “When they’re put into situations where they are forced to find new answers to new questions instead of just regurgitating correct answers, that’s when students are able to express their own observations, which is priceless. Art does the coolest stuff to the brain. One day we’ll finally realize that art is probably the greatest creation that humans have ever made.”

To learn more about the EmpowerYouth! program, visit www.lyricopera.org/empoweryouth.

Header image: Members of the 2019/20 EmpowerYouth! ensemble in a rehearsal pre-pandemic; credit: Kyle Flubacker.

Other images: Lyric Opera of Chicago