Growing up onstage

May 7, 2008 at 12:00 am

It's a sunny Sunday afternoon in April. About two dozen young people between the ages of 12 and 18 are gathered in the gymnasium at the University Preparatory Academy in Detroit.

They're dressed in casual clothes, T-shirts and sweats, as if lined up for a game of dodgeball in a phys ed class. Suddenly two of them break into an a cappella version of the Negro spiritual classic "Steal Away to Jesus." The two voices cut through the air, alternate for a minute, then harmonize beautifully. The rest of the group begins acting out scenes of the abduction and sale of African slaves.

These young people are in no phys ed class. They're part of the Mosaic Youth Theatre Company, here in a seven-hour rehearsal for the upcoming performance of Sing Jubilee! The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

The play was written for Mosaic by the acclaimed playwright, Charles "OyamO" Gordon. OyamO is an assistant professor of theater and writer-in-residence at the University of Michigan, and this is the second play he's written for the company. The first was City in a Strait, a play about civil rights in Detroit in the 1950s and '60s, which opened at the Detroit Film Theatre in 2007.

Sing Jubilee! is the inspiring story of a group of African-American singers who toured the United States and parts of Europe in 1871 to raise money for their small university in Nashville, Tenn. The Fisk Singers ended up being hugely influential and went down in history for introducing "slave songs" to the world.

The two dozen actors in the gym are the chorus section in the play. They move down the hall to the Mosaic Theatre, which is housed (along with the Mosaic offices) at the academy. There they join the nine Sing Jubilee! cast members, who've been working in a separate rehearsal room clustered around a piano. Among the nine cast members, there's a petite young woman with a gentle aura and a radiant smile. Aja Dier, a senior at Detroit's Renaissance High School, is here to prepare for her final appearance in a Mosaic production. In the fall, she'll be heading to Purchase College at the State University of New York to study acting.

Dier has been involved in Mosaic for three years. It took her a few years and a few attempts to finally get in. But since she first saw a Mosaic performance at her elementary school in the sixth grade, she was determined to become part of the company.

"I saw all these young people on stage, and they had so much energy, and they were so professional," she recalls. "I said, 'I've got to be in this.'"

Dier auditioned when she was in the eighth grade but didn't make the cut. She tried again the next year with the same devastating result. But that didn't keep her from trying one more time in her sophomore year. She finally got in.

"They really taught me to be comfortable in my own skin," she says. "I've always been a little offbeat, never fit into the box or the mold. But once I got to Mosaic, it seemed like they taught me, you can be comfortable with who you are."

Dier says she learned acting through Mosiac, but also self-confidence, drive, discipline and professionalism. Without the experience, she doubts she'd have been accepted to the program at Purchase College, where, she says, about 1,000 people auditioned for a class that would include only 22 students.

"Mosaic is an amazing place," Dier says. "I don't know where I'd be if I wasn't there."

Sing Jubilee! is not only Dier's final performance with Mosaic, it'll also be the last time she works with the group as a student leader and acting assistant. She's come a long way from the starry-eyed middle-school student for whom being a Mosaic member was only a dream.

Now, Dier takes her place with the other actors on the rehearsal stage. Mosaic CEO, founder and director, Rick Sperling, has just given a signal for quiet by raising his right hand. The room goes from a buzz of excited conversation to a mindful silence. Then the rehearsal begins.

Sperling is an award-winning actor who graduated from Oberlin College in 1989. He's energetic and appears to have a kind of magical connection with the art form. He shares freely that he has a stutter in his speech that disappears when he's on a stage.

"I was a product of youth theater growing up in Ann Arbor," Sperling says. "As a young person, I hungered for a place where the bar would be set very high."

Sperling had the opportunity to work with professional actors very early on in his career. His bar is definitely set "very high" for Mosaic.

"I didn't get into this because I wanted to be a youth worker," he says. "I am an actor and a director by trade, and I want to do great art." Still, Sperling understands that helping students develop as actors requires a great deal of attention and support.

Sing Jubilee! is an inspiring and skillfully told story that certainly fits the bill. OyamO had been researching the fascinating history of the Fisk singers for years. And it's been part of Mosaic's mission to deal with issues of racial equality and cultural experience. They've produced and performed a number of relevant plays, including 2001 Hastings Street about life in Detroit in the 1940s, City in a Strait, and Now That I Can Dance: Motown 1962. In fact, this is Mosaic's first production that deals with race and culture but doesn't focus on Detroit.

"We serve all the young people of Detroit," Sperling says. "But the majority of our young people are African-American, so we are drawn to stories that express that experience." It's also a way of putting these students in the shoes of artists and musicians from previous generations. And, he points out, while 2001 Hastings Street dealt with the African-American experience, it also dealt with the poor immigrant experiences of other races in Detroit.

"We want to make sure that our stories are always inclusive," he says.

Next year, Mosaic will be doing a play called Crossing Eight Mile, a remounting of a show they did several years ago based on Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. The play is a satirical take on city and suburban life, and it's all performed in masks, so any actor can play any gender or any race.

In addition to the excitement around the opening of Sing Jubilee!, Mosaic is also marking its 15th anniversary as an award-winning youth theater organization. A couple of years ago, several arts groups from major cities sayght to franchise Mosaic. After considering the idea, Mosaic's board declined, agreeing that they did not feel they had the capacity to branch out, nor did they want to lose focus on Detroit. (Although Sperling says he encourages other organizations to use Mosaic as a model.) Recently, the University of Michigan's Department of Psychology released the results of a three-year study of Mosaic's impact on the lives of young people. The outcomes were extraordinary. The study reported that "Even though Mosaic students are disproportionately minority and from low-income families, over 95% of Mosaic alumni have been admitted to college, dramatically above the national average for young people of similar backgrounds."

Sperling explains: "We've seen our young people get into the best colleges in the country. We've seen them get into Juilliard, the Tisch school, Berklee College of Music, Cornell, Brown, Howard, Oberlin and the top colleges. Our motto is 'Only the best, nothing less.'"

Sing Jubilee! runs May 9-11 and 16-18, at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 4 p.m. on Sundays, at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900). School matinees will be at 10 a.m. Thursday, May 8 and 15. For more information, call 313-872-6910 or visit

Norene Cashen is a freelance writer and poet whose most recent book is The Reverse Is also True. Send comments to [email protected]