Student play stitches a community together

A silence falls on the room as the students unroll the quilt and reveal a kaleidoscope of history.

Each colorful, handmade panel tells the story of a slave girl's family history, from Africa to captivity in America.

But the quilt also symbolizes something deeper: how a rural school district in Arkansas drew together to educate an entire community about African-American history by producing an original, student-written play.

"This play has really united everyone in this community," says Angela Piggee, principal of Burl Henry Elementary School in Hope, Ark. "I have never seen anything like it."

"This is a wonderful vehicle to use to teach about black history," adds Repha Buckman, director of the arts council in Hope. "We have also learned about economics, politics, the social life of the time, and most of all the students have learned how to work together as a team with each other and people in the community."

"Oh Freedom" is a complex play about a 12-year-old girl named Hope. Set in Little Rock, Ark., in 1845, it tells the story of Hope's struggles after her father dies. She learns that although he had raised her as white, her mother was actually a slave who died during childbirth. The white stepmother turns on Hope, who concludes that her only chance for freedom is to escape through the Underground Railroad.

The inspiration for the effort came from Black History Month and a group of fifth-graders. Two years ago this month, Sonji Flemons, a fifth-grade teacher at Burl Henry Elementary, asked her class what type of project would spark their interest. That was easy, they said: a play.

As it turned out, that might have been the easiest part of the endeavor. When students first picked up their pens, they couldn't imagine their efforts would reach far beyond the borders of their school to involve everyone from high school art students to local businesses - even teachers in other states.

The small town of Hope in southwest Arkansas, noted for being the birthplace of President Bill Clinton, has an active arts council. It has strived to help children appreciate all forms of art from a young age.

So the council invited Ms. Buckman, who then lived in Kansas, to help the students write "Oh Freedom." Buckman was so impressed with Hope and its students that she left Kansas to become the council's director.

"A play is like a piece of art, and it's not finished until it is produced," says Buckman.

To that end, an arts-council grant helped the students produce the play. Another grant brought in a fabric expert from Missouri to help create a quilt that would accurately tell about the slave girl's heritage.

But it wasn't just the fifth-grade students who drove the project forward. More than 210 students have had a part in the play or its production. Even the school district's superintendent has joined in. Carlos Price says he plays "an old guy with a Southern accent."

The Super 8 motel is giving the school use of its banquet room for the production, and the class has invited Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Hope native, to attend the play, which is running through Feb. 26. High school art students have made 60 sets of pottery - cups, plates and bowls - to use for the dinner theater. Ten place settings will be auctioned to help cover the play's costs.

Because the play knocks down racial barriers and involves the community, other teachers are looking at it as a model to follow for future black history projects.

Claudia Leonesio, who is helping her friend Buckman co-direct the play, teaches drama at the Vista Academy of Visual and Performing Arts in San Diego County, Calif. Her school gave her a sabbatical to travel to Hope to work on the project, so that when she returns the academy will be able to use the play in its own multicultural curriculum.

For all the fanfare, the educators say there is an important lesson to be learned for both the students and the community.

"This is the perfect example of using the arts to show conflict resolution," says Ms. Leonesio. "It bestows a peace on the community and teaches a valuable lesson. I hope this play is done across the nation."

"The entire project has been a great learning experience," says Timothy Pote, a seventh-grader who helped write the play when he was in fifth grade. He says he learned a lot from lectures that the arts council sponsored on the social, political, and economic conditions of the play's time period. "I probably wouldn't have paid that much attention to history, but now I feel like I was part of it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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