On a Manhattan stage this week, young people too often unheard and unseen rendered art from their lives and the troubles of far too many who grow up in foster care and in homeless shelters.
In one vignette, Ella struggles to earn enough money to look after her siblings at home in the South Bronx. The fictionalized character compares the crushing responsibilities to the pressure of being underwater, in an ocean. In another, a fire breaks out in the same housing shelter. But the alarm system is broken, and the kids have to help each other flee with no warning. It’s too late for teenage Isabel’s portfolio of paintings, which is destroyed in the ensuing chaos, jeopardizing her chances of applying to a prestigious art school. In another scene, high-schooler Melody speaks out for war-torn communities in a desperate bid to avoid the painful realities of her home life.
“In my dreams, I’m anywhere but here,” Ella told a packed audience Thursday night at the Midnight Theater at the Manhattan West Plaza, which featured a stage lined by red velvet curtains.
These were just a few of the stories that theater students participating in a program called Haven Kids Rock told in “Shelter Me.” The pop-rock musical running through Saturday features original songs based on real-life stories that depict the struggles of families in low-income households, shelters and the child welfare system. The program, which offers underserved youth a way to heal from traumatic experiences through the arts, was built for Mott Haven Academy, a unique charter school in the city created specifically for children in foster care. Two-thirds of the student population have experienced foster care or homelessness.
Nefertiti “Nef” Jones is one half of the duo who wrote and composed the original music performed by the child actors in “Shelter Me,” alongside her musician husband Jimi Bones. Jones has worked with students since 2008, teaching music, dance and acting. The film rights for the first musical they wrote for the kids, titled “Unstoppable,” have been optioned by Dolphin Entertainment. This year, many of the students contributed to the lyrics and wrote monologues, drawing on experiences from their own lives and people around them.
“Writing their own stories empowers them,” Jones said. “It makes them feel like they have control over their future. I think it creates a safety net and a safe space.”
An enthusiastic audience of roughly 80 people encouraged the young performers, ages 9 through 18. They received a standing ovation after Thursday night’s performance from the friends, family members, donors, casting directors, artists and music producers in attendance.
Seventeen-year-old Mott Haven senior Timothy Hilliard is among the performers. Hilliard grew up in Patterson Projects, a public housing development in the Bronx neighborhood near his school. The arts program made all the difference.
“Honestly, if I didn’t come to this program, I don’t know where I would be,” Hilliard said in an interview before Thursday night’s performance. “I live in the projects, so I didn’t have a lot of good things around me. But the one good thing that came was Nef.”
Hilliard’s character, Shy, opens the show with a rap segment the teenager wrote. He used to just sing to himself in his room. But he has gone on to perform on television and at staged events across New York City at prominent venues including Barclays Center and The Metropolitan. Hilliard plans to continue pursuing an acting career after graduation.
Through heart-wrenching monologues and captivating musical numbers, the production’s cast worked to reconcile their living conditions with colorful dreams about their futures — becoming a professional basketball player, a mural artist depicting beauty amidst destruction, and a documentary filmmaker exposing the harsh realities of underserved communities.
Though “Shelter Me” explores somber themes, playful songs such as “Welcome to my Candy Land,” and moments of hilarity elicited hearty chuckles from the audience. At one point, a feisty pre-teen charged an older youth $15 for two minutes of therapy.
Eryk Romero, who played aspiring filmmaker Capri, charmed the audience with his slapstick performance. The senior also contributed to the music, describing his love for theater as an “escape from reality,” especially during the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Songwriting really helped with my anxiety, coping with my emotions,” Romero said in an interview after the show. “Whenever I had an issue, I’d just write it out in a song.”
“In my dreams, I’m anywhere but here.”— Ella in “Shelter Me”
This is what the play excelled at, depicting typical teenage troubles — of jittery young love and sibling arguments — despite tough circumstances.
Sixth-grader Daralyn Frederick is participating in the musical for the first time, playing one of the young kids in the choir and a loyal customer of a local candy stand. Though it was challenging to memorize lines for months on end, she said she loved being able to put all her energy into singing and dancing.
“I know it’s important for people to watch the musical because it’s about people in shelters and what they actually have to go through,” Frederick said.
The issues raised in the musical reflect how drastically the crisis has worsened in recent years. New data released earlier this month by the nonprofit Advocates for Children show that roughly one in nine New York City students experienced homelessness during the 2022–23 school year. The highest concentration of homeless students was in District 9, in the South Bronx.
In an attempt to better serve students in these shaky circumstances, this academic year the Department of Education opened a new office dedicated to students in foster care and temporary housing. District staff will work to provide students with mentorship, academics, counseling and school stability.
Theater and artistic performance could help too.
A recent research review published last year by the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts described drama-based therapies as moving steadily toward a growing evidence base “supported by empirical studies.”
The benefits of performing arts, yoga, music and other physical and expressive art forms are increasingly embraced by clinicians and service providers within foster care and other youth-serving systems. In his best-selling book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk described such therapeutic interventions as particularly effective for youth with backgrounds in foster care. “Despite their differences, all of these programs share a common foundation: confrontation of the painful realities of life and symbolic transformation through communal action,” van der Kolk wrote.
“Shelter Me” culminates in a stand-out group number, calling out the importance of community and accepting people’s backgrounds as a stepping stone, rather than a hindrance to future life goals. That includes children in the city’s most resource-starved neighborhoods.
“My zip code doesn’t determine my outcome,” Melody reminded the audience before the house lights went dim.
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