ST. PETERSBURG – The holiday season without the “The Family Blessing” is like imagining Christmas without eggnog. The 19th annual community production of what was once the “Chocolate Nutcracker” still draws crowds from around the Tampa Bay area to kick start the winter holidays.
“If you want to be a dancer in life, it gets you ready for everything,” said Dunedin middle school seventh grader Joshua Christopher Gregory Smith backstage before the show.
Smith has been with Arts 4 Life for the last three years. He started out playing the best friend to the main character and protagonist Michael. Smith’s favorite scene in the production is the city scene.
“There’s so much musical in the background, and you can actually move to it,” said Smith. Does Smith really want to keep performing? His response: “Yes, forever!”
Fairmount Park elementary student Jeloni Parks, Smith’s former sidekick, waited patiently to share his thoughts on what he likes about being the lead male character.
“You get to be in all the routines, and you kinda don’t have to rush and change quickly to other stuff,” said Parks.
When the nine year old was asked where he could see himself 10 years from now, he only said one word: “Broadway!”
Parks has been the lead character in “A Family Blessing” for the last two years. The annual production has cast members that return year after year from pre-K to senior high school. Once again the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg would come alive with a multicultural journey across the globe in music, dance and drama.
Bay News 9 anchor Erica Riggins welcomed the audience as people continued to stream into the theater and take their seats. Riggins acknowledged Jai Hinson for her continuous contribution to the artistic and holistic development of youth in the Tampa Bay area.
As Hinson walked on stage, the crowd, young and old, cheered loudly and vibrantly because she has been responsible for nurturing future and leaders. One of the young leaders in ballet, Calvin Royal III, returned to the Tampa Bay area to receive the key to the city from Urban Affairs Director Nikki Gaskin-Capehart.
Michael, played by Parks, is discouraged after witnessing urban violence that claims the life of a youth in his community. He begins to question himself and his ambitions like many young youth today. They wonder, like Michael, if there is really any way out.
However, Michael is blessed to have access to a strong and gifted matriarch, his grandmother Zola, played by Adia Hoffist, who comforts him that troublesome evening until he falls asleep. At the beginning of Michael’s dream, his grandmother greets him again, but she is the young, beautiful and vibrant Princess Zola- a gifted dancer. She grabs a hold of her grandson’s hand and the global journey in dance begins.
Michael visits Jazz Land, the rain forest, Bali Land and Africa. Many guest artists contributed to Michael’s global journey in dance, such as Samiyah Parrimore, Vincent Bigham, Mahetzi, Darius Carter, Dundu Dole, PCCA Gibbs High School students, Solomon Mason and Blue Jay Native American dancers.
The climatic highlight of the show was the two Chakaba Stilt Dancers instead of just one. The two towering performers thrilled the audience with their comedic antics and physical dexterity. As all the dancers and performers joined in for the finale, the audience joined in with a synchronized clap.
The show before the show
Prior to the Saturday night performance, three young men sat down backstage and shared the role that Arts 4 Life played in resurrecting each of their lives. What they shared were three candid realities of growing into manhood as an African-American male in an American city.
Marques McGill is 21 years old. He grew up in Clearwater on Terrace Road.
“My great-grandma being my rock, and my great-auntie being my best friend,” said McGill.
Since McGill was the youngest cousin for a long time, he was not welcomed by his older cousins who bullied him. However, he could always count on his great-grandmother and great-aunt to be there for him.
“I was a real church boy, so I didn’t really connect with the other kids that I was growing up with, but around seventh grade I lost my auntie. So I went through a life-changing experience where I had to lean on myself and figure out what I want to do, and like how I want to do it. Luckily at the time I had already been with Mamma Jai at what once had been life force…I was 10. Doing African dance and modern dance has helped me grow into the man that I am today.”
McGill is currently a sophomore education major at Saint Leo University in Dade City, and he looks forward to sharing his love of culture, the arts and the residual knowledge from both to inspire generations of young people who come up after him.
“I want to keep myself humble; I want to keep myself open for new experiences and just ready to do whatever I need to do.”
Ryan Copeland is 28 years old, from Tampa. He grew up in a single-parent household.
“By nature, they say it’s hard for a woman to raise a boy into a man,” said Copeland.
However, Copeland’s mother was wise and realized that she could not do it all on her own.
“Through the grace of God and my mother placing me around strong men, here I am today,” said Copeland.
However, Copeland’s personal saving grace, just like McGill, was the arts.
“Music has been a part of my life starting at the age of two,” said Copeland.
He and his family moved from Tampa to St. Petersburg when he was in eighth grade where he would soon meet Isaiah Johnson.
“We gained a true brotherhood,” said Copeland about Johnson.
Copeland stated that his love for drumming evolved into creating music fulltime.
“I have not had a 9-to-5 in my life: this is my job,” emphasized Copeland about working at his passion. He runs a music production company with Nicco Warren, Johnson’s older brother. Copeland met Warren when he first moved to St. Pete.
He credits his present success with meeting good people like Warren who inspired him. In addition, Copeland walked with his Master’s in Business Administration in 2015.
“At the end of the day, all I wanted to do was to help my mother out,” said Johnson, reflecting the staunch character trait of a provider.
Johnson started drumming with Dundu Dole when he was seven. However, he also loved playing sports. Many times he was around older men playing football and basketball.
“Out of my brothers I was the hard-headed one. I didn’t want to hurt anybody, it was just me wanting to make it happen…and it was misguided.” Johnson added.
Johnson stated that for however many hours he was drumming, he was fine and with family, but once he returned home, he was “back in the hood,” and that’s when troubles started.
“I started selling weed in school,” said Johnson. He added that his mother did not know at first, but she eventually found out. Once Johnson got good at the dope game, he started robbing in Clearwater and Tampa. He was just 16 years old.
Eventually, he got caught and one out of five robbery charges stuck. He was a young black man under 21 years old with a police record. Bad news! Although he went to jail, he was bonded out. However, the lure of what seemed like easy money caught Johnson’s attention.
“Someone close to me ended up showing me how to sell dope. I ain’t know nothing about that. But they cared about my life knowing that I wasn’t going to live long enough to be a man by robbing.”
Johnson felt that people had to respect him as a man despite the duality and contradiction of his life at the time. He ended up in jail again, this time for 12 months. That was the beginning of the turning point for Johnson. He got married, and he became a father.
“Now I’m 28, I don’t sell drugs, I don’t rob. I work two jobs. I’m a manager at one. I’m back to drumming. Just making it happen… the right way! You know, I want to live to see my kids grow.”
In addition to Johnson’s deep concern about being there for his kids, he highlighted a key point about doing jail time.
“You’re not just the only one doing time. You’ve got realize that your momma’s doing that time with you, your kids doin’ that time with you, your lady’s doing that time with you!”
Johnson had just enough of the good stuff in him-as well as many loved ones to shield him long enough to shift from the lane of death to the lane of life.
McGill, Copeland, and Johnson are three brothers living “A Family Blessing” through the arts under the love and guidance of Hinson and Arts 4 Life.