“Our home is the origins of Africans in the United States,” Tanya Phillips reminded eleven high school students at the St. Helena branch library. “Tell a story from your area. What perspective are you coming from? What do you want your audience to see?”
We were sitting in the meeting room where a twenty-five foot ceiling gave these young artists plenty of room to consider her words. Space is a primary factor in getting creative work done, and there it is on St. Helena Island, along with fields of strawberries and breakfasts of just-caught oysters.
Phillips is organizing the first group of Beaufort students– poets, actors, dancers and engineers– to compete in the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics. The event was founded in 1978 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The group has been meeting at the library, a contemporary facility that is just as inspiring to these students as Phillips’ words and actions. The building, opened in 2012, has clean angles and smooth curves, lots of sunlight and glass, and is equipped with array of tools– an audio lab, a room woven like a cast net and an amphitheater-like reading garden among them. These components form a studio that every artist could use. It’s no coincidence that Penn Center, that historically creative and inspirational place, is the library’s neighbor.
Tenth grader Jordan Johnson, who wore a delicate scarf draped around her shoulders, is competing in both drama and painting.
“I’ve always been a dramatic child to begin with,” she said.
So far she’s been behind the scenes, building props.
“I love every aspect, but now I’ve decided to be on the frontlines,” she said.
She’s working on voice projection and stage presence with a three minute monologue.
“Having confidence is about letting people know that you know what you are doing,” she said.
Her painting will be a landscape. “My dad and I scouted and took lots of pictures of marshes and birds taking off.”
After the business meeting, a few of us moved into the cast net room. It spirals like a nautilus shell in the center of the library. Even with its open weave, walking into it feels like a separate place.
There, the high schoolers discussed why they’re competing.
“It’s important to get experience and connect with good people who have your best interest in mind,” Johnson said.
“This will be the first time I’m performing as myself,” said Tavian Smalls. His art-making tool is the saxophone.
“I’ve already done big performances,” said poet William Garvin. “This is good to get my name out there.”
Garvin’s stage name is Da Troot. He recently performed his poem “No Regrets” at the Penn Center Civil Right Symposium and for the board of education. He was inspired by anti-violence demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo.
“I write a poem every day,” Garvin explained, “to figure out what I’m most connected to.”
Before he started writing, he was frustrated.
“I would shut down, and I was showing up at in-school suspension all the time,” he said.
Finally, someone put paper and pencil in his hands.
Now, “I just rhyme, put my perspective on everything I see,” he said.
And he spends a lot of time at the library, serving on the teen advisory board, teaching others to use the audio lab, and organizing open mic events in the reading garden– which is where we went next to take photographs for the souvenir program.
The garden is a grand, open space with benches, tufts of sweet grass and a view of the big trees on Penn Center’s property, all reflected in the glass wall of the library. Steps run the length of the building and form an organic stage for whoever stops there with something to say about what rhymes for them.
Students have until May 2, when they will show off their creative ambitions at the Performing Arts Center at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort. Marlena Smalls will emcee.
In July, contenders will move on to the nationals in Philadelphia, to compete for $200,000, recognition, internships and publication– and meaningful connections between their heritage, the world, and their ideas.
Lisa Annelouise Rentz lives in Beaufort.
Image: photos from the 2014 national event.