By Baris Gursakal
On September 20, Playback Memphis staged its second annual Frayser Matters performance, but it was a first appearance for the members of its new Playback Memphis Youth Ensemble.
The youth ensemble consists of sixth and seventh graders representing several Frayser middle schools including Westside and the Memphis Business Academy.
The youth, along with members of Playback’s adult ensemble, worked together to listen to audience members’ stories then act out or ‘play back’ what they heard.
The players performed a movement mirroring exercise, acted out improvisational scenes in response to audience prompts, and sang songs paired with improvisational dance moves and live music.
“I was excited [to perform] because I learned how to do this last year, and now today, I have more courage than I did last time,” said youth ensemble member Madyson Margette.
Playback theater performances aim to facilitate dialogue around difficult topics and help audience members build empathy as they learn about the experiences, struggles and perspectives of other audience members.
The moving, hour-long performance prompted tears and laughter from the audience.
“I’m a psychologist, and it’s almost like they do psychology really quickly, much more quickly, by having people act out the dramas that people are experiencing,” said audience member Dixie Fletcher. “We used to teach some of the same peacebuilding skills when I was in the school system, but I like the way they do it better than how we did it.”
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“It’s empowering to be able to work with a group of young people who may have different struggles, ideas, and experiences but are able to come together for the same purpose and be together and open and hear other peoples stories and honor them,” said Leslie Jones, who oversees the Playback’s youth programming.
More than An Art
Members of Playback’s youth ensemble began learning their craft in fifth grade as part of Playback’ Be the Peace! school-based program. They then attended its inaugural Be the Peace! summer camp held this year.
The school-based program operated in Corning and Frayser elementary schools until they merged to become Frayser-Corning. Now Playback’s adult ensemble members meet weekly with Frayser-Corning 5th graders for hands-on training and quarterly for school-wide performances. Playback also provides professional development for teachers focused on trauma-informed, mindful school leadership.
Many schools in Frayser struggle with a lack of funding for arts programming, which is one reasons Playback Memphis is working in the area, but the organization does more than provide children with an opportunity to participate in the arts.
It teaches the children about “peacebuilding” which Playback’s director, Virginia Murphy, says strengthens communication and conflict resolution skills and encourages healthy coping mechanisms when faced with both everyday issues and the extraordinary challenges.
Frayser is large and diverse, and the life experiences of its residents vary greatly. However, Playback’ data shows, nearly 80 percent of Frayser’s children live below the federal poverty line, and its crime rate is over 200 percent above the national average.
Over half of people living in Shelby County report at least one adverse childhood experience — such as homelessness, loss of a parent to death or incarceration or abuse in the household — but that figure increases in areas of extreme disinvestment like Frayser.
“Most of these kids are surviving complex trauma on a daily basis,” said Murphy.
Frayser’s schools and families are chronically underserved and often unable to fully address their children’s complex social and emotional needs, let alone find and fund opportunities to strengthen social-emotional learning and build a positive school culture informed by the realities of trauma and survival.
Three of Playback’s adult ensemble members were previously incarcerated and two now live in Frayser. They were first exposed to playback theater as part of their work to rebuild their lives post-release but say if they’d had Playback Memphis as children, they may not have been incarcerated in the first place.
“Applying playback theater in the way that we do is just a beautiful way to share practices of awareness and compassion and really give them some skillful methods of being able to learn the art of generous listening, being able to resolve conflict peacefully, grow in awareness of their feelings and needs, and to pay attention to what other people are feeling and what they need,” said Murphy.
Members of Playback’s adult and youth ensembles performed at the second annual Playback Memphis Frayser Matters performance held on September 20, 2019. (Jenny Myers, Playback Memphis)
Playback’s Steps Forward
Playback is now looking towards expanding its school-based program into additional Frayser elementary schools, as well as partnering with Tim and Kim Ware, who are developing a proposal for an alternative school for high students who drop out of traditional schools. They plan to present to Shelby County Schools in the next few months.
“One of our big areas of focus is going to be how we build up developmental assets in young people with a specific focus on things like restorative practices, mindfulness, and empathy,” said Tim Ware.
“Playback Memphis does a phenomenal job at that,” he continued. “We are interested in seeing if we could partner, if the school is approved, and kind of have it built into the DNA of the school.”
The organization also plans to host a spring performance for the youth ensemble and has plans for another Be the Peace! summer camp in June 2020.
Margette attended the 2019 camp and says she plans on attending again next year.
“I liked the summer camp because we learned how to do more stuff than we did at school,” said Margette comparing the intensive summer experience with her fifth grade experience.
“I learned to have more courage when I speak because I was shy before I came to the camp and before I was in Playback.”
This article originally appeared in the New Tri-State Defender