Strutting back and forth across the gymnasium floor, 11-year-old Antonio Ingram is getting into character. As “Anthony” in Columbia’s Moving Ahead Theatre Troupe’s production of “Lil’ Man & Mookie,” Ingram is doing his best impression of a lawyer, wearing his nicest shirt, neatly pressed and tucked in, and pacing in front of the “jury” with his hands folded behind his back.
“Lil’ Man & Mookie” is a story of two children who bicker with each other on the playground. The argument continues into the classroom, where the teacher then decides the only way to discover who is to blame for the confrontation is to hold a mock trial. Ingram portrays the lawyer who represents one of the two main characters, Lil’ Man, played by Isaiah Anderson.
At the end of the play, Lil’ Man and Mookie, played by Tamisha Rhodes, reconcile their differences by both agreeing not to attend a class field trip as punishment for their behavior.
“The story is really about conflict resolution,” said Carroll Zu-Bolton, who wrote the play. “It teaches the students how to work together and to treat one another with respect.”
“Lil’ Man & Mookie” is being produced by the theater troupe at Moving Ahead, an after-school program funded by the Columbia Housing Authority. The play, which features 21 children, ages 5 to 15, will make its premier at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the Columbia Public Library. Admission is free. On May 12, the cast will take the play on the road to Rockford, Ill., for a performance at Ellis Performing Arts Academy. The story is narrated by Alex Holloway-Melise, a senior at MU, who is directing “Lil Man & Mookie” as his capstone course in social work.
“The kind of work we do here is extremely vital,” Holloway-Melise said. “It is critical to have a college degree today, and by providing help and interaction for under-privileged children, their chances of success are increased.”
Zu-Bolton, who has been writing plays since she was in high school, came up with the story line for Lil’ Man & Mookie while reminiscing with an old friend about their childhood in New Orleans, La. It was first performed by a class at Diaspora Academy, a New Orleans school founded by Zu-Bolton and her husband, the late poet and playwright Ahmos Zu-Bolton.
Carroll Zu-Bolton, program coordinator for Moving Ahead, came to Columbia six years ago. She uses her plays and acting to help students advance their reading and memory skills. Tyrone “T-Man” Raybon, who works alongside Zu-Bolton, came to Moving Ahead in 2001. He says Zu-Bolton’s plays really help children, who are typically referred to Moving Ahead by Columbia schools.
“When I first read Ms. Z’s play, it touched me,” Raybon said. “These children use the lessons they learn from that play in their everyday lives. It gives them structure and teamwork, an opportunity to shine, and it will give them initiative to work harder in the future.”
Moving Ahead also offers tutoring and other after-school activities aimed at increasing struggling students’ chances of success. However, there is evidence that children who get involved in theater and other arts programs do better in school and in their personal lives.
A study conducted by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, published in 2000, followed 23 “economically disadvantaged” students enrolled in arts programs in New York City schools for two years. The researchers discovered that the development of artistic talent can be an important factor in becoming a healthy and productive adult.
“The skills and discipline they gained,” the study concluded, “the bonds they formed with peers and adults, and the rewards they received through instruction and performing fueled their talent development journey and helped most achieve success both in and outside of school.”
Regina Divine founded the Missouri African-American Repertory Theatre in Jefferson City as an outlet to showcase black theater and to give the community a voice. Divine said that acting is an outlet for intelligence and creativity and can help young people excel in other areas.
“I think it teaches them discipline and to follow directions,” she said. “It also helps them in using their personality, in relation to the character, creatively.”
Indeed, throughout the three months of rehearsals and preparation for their staging of “Lil Man & Mookie,” the cast members seemed to enjoy the camaraderie and sense of accomplishment. They took pride in remembering their lines and perfecting a scene.
Rhodes, who at age 8 is among the younger members of the cast, said she enjoys acting as an opportunity to express herself.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “You get to be someone else that you’re really not, and you get to fight with the people that you really want to.”
Ingram is already aspiring for stardom on stage and screen. He said he hopes to one day be the next Denzel Washington. As for the charisma and style he displays, he said: “I got it all from my mom!”