With God we’ve got this! Living the dream, Part II
BY ALLEN A. BUCHANAN, Staff Writer
NEW YORK — You might not be aware of it but south St. Petersburg’s brightest and most gifted local talent is taking the national and international entertainment venues by storm!
Currently, over a dozen performers, producers, writers and fashion designers are living in New York City, the Mecca that draws top talent from all over the world. Last week, you were introduced to one of St. Pete’s gifted performers, Santoya Fields, who now resides in New York. This week you will be exposed to six additional artists who migrated from St. Pete and Miami to the Big Apple to defy the odds and pursue their artistic dreams.
Listening to these young people, ranging in age from 18 to 30, talk about their unyielding determination to fulfill their artistic visions in life brings a whole new meaning to vigor, vitality and an uncompromising faith in a city that is brutal to any sign of frailty.
Bringing all six of these young Titans together in one place was quite a feat. Allyson Tolbert, Ebone Simone Johnson, Charles Smith, LaQuelle Mills, Samiyah Lynnice Parramore and Nikki Valentine showed up and shared their stories of triumph, challenge and resurgence on a hot and humid night in the KPMG Plaza on the corner of East 51th Street and Park Avenue.
Allyson, Ebone, and Laquelle hit pay dirt!
When Gibbs’ Pinellas County Center for the Arts (PCCA) alumnus Allyson Tolbert finished her undergraduate studies in Musical Theatre at the University of Florida in 2006, her dancing career took off like a rocket.
“I went on tour overseas in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Mel Brook’s “The Producers,” she said. The vibrant and eloquent Tolbert also performed in “Catch Me If You Can” for Troika Entertainment.
Unlike Tolbert, who was home grown and groomed in Florida for a performing arts career, Ebone Simone Johnson was a native New Yorker born in Harlem Presbyterian Hospital. Her family moved to St. Petersburg in the late 1990s. After Johnson finished Gibbs High School, she returned to New York City for an audition.
“I auditioned for the Knicks City Dancer and made the team,” said Johnson. After her initial big city success, Johnson made a big move to secure her future.
“I got an agent and worked with lots of signed artists along the way. I auditioned for “Step UP 2” and booked the movie as a lead actress right after the Knicks.”
Laquelle Mills, also a Gibbs PCCA Alumni, launched her dance career in New York after completing her A.A. degree at the New World School of the Arts in Miami. Unlike Allyson and Ebone, she had a different outlook on New York.
“I did not want any part of New York at first,” said Mills. However, when she did arrive in New York, she got caught up in the city’s creative energy.
“I started getting work with several dance companies like Dan Spiek Dance Theatre, Vissi Dance Theatre and Dancer For Soul Movement Dance Company,” said Mills as she explained how her career as a professional dancer and instructor would take her to China, Taiwan and Japan.
The entrepreneur, the untraditional and the new millennial
Michelle Valentine, a 2003 alumni of St. Petersburg High School’s IB Program, is not a trained dancer, actor or singer. Yet she is an artist. Nikki, as she is known by her peers and close friends, has an eye for fashion. That same eye zeroed in on New York City after her first visit one summer.
“I knew this was the place for me and Harlem is where I wanted to live,” said Valentine. However, her road to Harlem — as you will find out — was not paved with gold.
Enter Charles Smith, a 2005 Alumni of Gibbs High School and graduate of St. Petersburg College in 2008.
“When I saw the chance to work for my company in New York, I transferred because I was determined to be an artist here,” said Smith. He further sharpened his artistic skills as a dancer and choreographer by attending the Broadway Theatre Project.
“If I was going to be successful here, I would really have to pick up my pace. I was like a new born hatchling when I first arrived here from St. Petersburg,” he said.
Samiyah Lynnice Parramore, 18, is a Newark, N.J. native who moved to Miami and graduated from the New World School of the Arts. She also lived in Clearwater for a while with her grandmother known affectionately as Mama Jai Hinson. Parramore had her hopes set on entering either Julliard or the Alvin Ailey School of Dance. A childhood dance prodigy of the Life Force Arts Academy, Parramore grew up in her grandmother’s production of the annual holiday classic “The Chocolate Nutcracker.”
“She is so out-of-the-box,” said Mills about Parramore’s dance style.
“I wasn’t accepted by either school (Julliard or Alvin Ailey),” said Parramore. However, she did not give up on her dream of attending college in the northeast.
“I was accepted into the Hartt School of Music, Dance and Theatre in Hartford, Conn. I can’t wait to get started.”
Making it in New York City is like traveling down the yellow brick road to the Land of Oz. The excitement of the challenge is intoxicating and can sometimes blur one’s vision of the realities of surviving in the big metropolis. There are many lessons to be learned.
“New York can make you feel on top of the world, then in an instant she can slap you down and think nothing of it,” said Tolbert as she recalled one of those instances that happened while she was working out of field and auditioning for new shows.
“On one job I worked as an event coordinator. I really enjoyed it. I was making 20 dollars an hour. And that’s considered a decent hourly salary by most people. We were getting ready for an event, but there had been a minor miscommunication. My supervisor decides to ridicule me in front of the rest of the workers. I pride myself on being well organized [and] meticulous. But that’s when I decided no amount of money was worth being humiliated like that. And I left!”
Ebone sighed as she has had her fill of rough moments in the metropolis.
“One thing you have to realize in this business is that people don’t care about your problems,” said Ebone. “You’ve got to be strong or you’ll get crushed because your misfortune is their opportunity…At one point early in my career I made over $100,000 dollars and didn’t save any of it. If I ever make that much again — knowing what I know now — I’ll save as much as I can!”
The group moved closer together because each one of them could recall one of those life moments that made them question what they were doing, who they were as an artist and their spirituality.
“I was working this really good job for a year teaching dance in China,” said Smith. “I had about three months to go before returning home when I suddenly became ill. It was appendicitis and they had to operate. In China, people have to pay before you have surgery. And if you don’t have the money you could die. Well, I wasn’t very happy about doing this in China. My employer wasn’t either. But I had to do it. When I landed back in New York City, I had a $100 dollars in my pocket. If it wasn’t for my friends here, I wouldn’t have made it!”
Mills squeezed Smith’s hand as she recalled an interesting experience she too had in the Orient.
“The roughest time of my career was when I was in China for five months,” said Mills. “I thought that it would be an amazing experience which it was because I got to see and be a part of the culture, but the business part of it was really bad. I ended up being involved with the wrong company to the point I had to escape to a different part of China. It was really hard because I wasn’t making the money I was supposed to make, and also I had to act like all was well to my family. I didn’t want anyone to have to worry about my well-being. So in doing that I had no one to talk to or to vent to…To make it worse it was only the first month and I had four more to go! The experience really taught me a lot when dealing with business and working with people from other countries.”
Valentine thought she had the ideal arrangement when she first moved to New York.
“A bunch us were living together in an apartment paying about $450 a month,” said Valentine. Considering that most studios go for $1,500 to $2,200, she had a sweetheart deal for a new comer in Oz.
“When I returned from work one evening, I found notices posted on people’s doors that everyone had three days to move out or else the landlord would evict them. So now here I am trying to figure what to do. I ended up rooming with a friend in Triboro, the projects of all places. I had never lived in the projects in my life!”
Everyone chuckled as they all had experienced the taste of humiliation several times during their young careers.
“I kid you not, every morning I left for work and saw young people my age just standing around, not doing anything. When I came home from work, they were still there day in and day out! So I decided to focus on what I had to do. Get a job and get back in graduate school. Every day I went back and forth to work, school and blocking out everything else in between. That was the only way,” said Valentine.
By the end of her first year, she and her fiancé found a nice studio apartment in one of the historic communities of Upper East Harlem.
Recipe for Success
The clap of thunder rumbled in the background as the first drops of rain fell just as Johnson began her mini-lecture on haters.
“People who called themselves my friends but aren’t supportive I said goodbye to,” exclaimed Johnson emphatically. “All they’ll do is pull you down. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t make it!”
Valentine talks about bringing your “A” game and nothing less. “You’ve got to be razor-sharp focused,” she said.
Tolbert reminds us about taking calculating risks. “You have to be true to yourself and be willing to step out of your comfort zone,” she said.
“You have to trust in God and keep the faith,” said Mills.
Smith emphasized connecting with the God-self within when you are about to throw in the towel of fate. “You can never, ever give up on yourself,” he said.
Parramore punctuates fulfilling your divine purpose. “If it’s what you’re meant to do, you won’t be happy doing anything else,” she said.
And if you stay the course no matter what, you’ll be able to make the Allyson Tolbert proclamation: “I’m where I’m supposed to be right now.” She is constantly checking in with her agent for shows she can audition for.
Her persistence has paid off. She recently booked two shows “Something Funny Happened On The Way To The Forum” at the Flatrock Regional Theatre in North Carolina and “Dreamgirls” at Portland Center Stage in Oregon. She signed the contract for “Dreamgirls” and will be headed out west on Sept.1.
Charles Smith, choreographer for the Brooklynettes Dancers for the Nets basketball team, recently became choreographer for the reality show “Sister Hood of Hip Hop” and Sony recording artist Fly Panda.
Ebone Simone Johnson rocked the Jimmy Kimmel Live stage as one of the featured dancers on national TV with Kiesza who performed “Hideaway” and “Giant In My Heart.” More recently she danced with Diplo at the Mad Decent Block Party in front of a crowd of 10,000, and is now on a west coast tour with Kiesza.
LaQuelle Mills is a dancer with Forces of Nature Dance Theatre. Samiyah Lynnice Parramore is off to college to hone razor-sharp skills in the performing arts. And Michelle “Nikki” Valentine is shopping her new resume in the marketplace after completing graduate studies in Fashion Entrepreneurship and Business Administration. She has also put her entrepreneurial skills to work by developing an online app for her fashion design website to be launched in the fall.
Allyson, Ebone, Charles, Laquelle, Samiyah, and Nikki credit their success to staying spiritually connected and to having been taught by great hometown motivators like Andrida Hosey, Mama Jai Hinson, Mrs. Page and Mrs. “P.”