By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Sahr Nngaujah could very well win a Tony Award for his exceptional performance as Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti in the new Broadway musical Fela!, but on Monday night, a high school student stole his thunder.
While he was making a speech at this year’s graduation ceremony for Theatre Development Fund’s Open Doors Program, Moses Mayungbo, a student at Talent Unlimited High School, asked the crowd if they’d like to see him perform Fela!’s opening monologue. The audience, who was gathered in the auditorium at the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan, encouraged him to show what he could do.
For a moment, the kid was Fela, strutting and flirting and boldly announcing his role in history. When he finished, hundreds of people, including students, teachers, and luminaries of theatre and dance, leapt to their feet.
But they weren’t just celebrating his performance. They were celebrating the joy that always accompanies the Open Doors program.
Founded by TDF and the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein in 1998, Open Doors pairs top theatre and dance professionals with a group of eight juniors and seniors from a New York City public high school. Together, the students and their mentors attend six performances in the course of a school year, and they follow each show with a ninety-minute discussion over pizza and soda. These discussions are the program's core, encouraging students to freely express their responses to what they’ve seen.
Mayungbo saw Fela! with his Open Doors group, and in his graduation speech, he said that as someone with a Nigerian background, the show was especially thrilling.
For Flushing International High School student Mitzi Sanchez, dance performances proved especially powerful. At a reception before the ceremony, she described the pieces she saw with her mentor, renowned choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, by saying, “They went beyond my expectations. I used to see dance as just movements, but now I see it’s much more. It’s a way of expressing yourself.”
Orville Bell, an English teacher at the Harvey Milk School, echoed Sanchez, noting that Open Doors helps his students connect more deeply to the plays they study in class. “They enjoy the written word,” he said, “but it’s important for them to see how the written word can be magnified on stage, or sometimes how it can even become a disappointment.”
But it’s not just the students who learn. At the reception, William Finn, an Open Doors mentor and the composer of musicals like Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, said, “The kids are fascinating. They’re really smart, they’re funny and they teach me a lot. I’m looking at so many stupid things now, but they understand theatre emotionally, the way I used to.”
In a speech at the ceremony, actress and mentor Kathleen Chalfant said, “It’s funny to have people called ‘mentees’ when I feel like the one who is being mentored. [When we discuss the shows,] I’m handed back the truth about what they see---a remarkable, perceptive truth that you rarely get in life.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor