AbunDance Academy of the Arts is an established non-profit arts organization dedicated to offering children and adults affordable dance, theater, and musical instruction at all levels. In June of 2018 they will present a new work titled “DREAM, AbunDantly!”
Inspired by the hit movie “Dreamgirls,” “DREAM, AbunDantly!” tells the story of four African American girls who follow their dreams to become top performers, while using their platform to champion the fight against racism/segregation, police brutality and cultural appropriation. The musical play begins in 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where innocent girls lost their lives; their dreams cut short. Four young girls honor the four little girls of Birmingham by expressing their own dreams aloud and striving hard to become star performers. From that moment on they become “The Dreamettes.” The audience will travel with these girls through time from their first performance at the famed Apollo Theater to the peak of their stardom. Along the way, we will witness how these women face their fears and the hardships that come with being black female entertainers; from segregation in the south to the appropriation of their songs and just growing apart. United, The Dreamettes decide to sing for the voiceless, and to not let anything get in the way of their dreams. It is an inspiring story expressed primarily through dance, song and live music, and therefore “DREAM, AbunDantly!” is a celebration of black women reaching across generations to achieve their dreams.
With over 100 performers ranging from 2.5 to 70 years old and a cast of Broadway alumni including Karisma Jay, the founder of AbunDance Academy of the Arts who will masterfully play the role of “Effie” in “DREAM, AbunDantly!” the program aims to inspire people to persevere to achieve their dreams, while using their voice to contribute to the greater good of society. Moreover, the theatrical dance performance will feature students and seasoned Broadway artists on the same stage. Audience members can expect to hear hit music from the original soundtrack of “Dreamgirls,” but used in a unique context. Some of the hits include “Listen,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and “Cadillac Car.” Renditions of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and Ray Charles’ “Mess Around,” speak to the appropriation of black artist’s songs, while songs like “Say It Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud” celebrate African American culture.
Abundance Academy of the Arts recently reopened its doors in March 2018 at 90 Sullivan Place in Crown Heights, NYC, after being uprooted from its home in Lefferts Garden, Brooklyn due to hyper-gentrification and sudden rising rents. This year’s performance at Kings Theatre is the first while in the new space, and will support its continuing growth. This event subsequently helps to raise funds to support the AbunDance Academy of the Arts ongoing commitment to offering top notch instruction to people of all income levels so that they can experience the arts first-hand. From full scholarships to low sliding scale fees, the organization makes the arts accessible through its hands-on instruction and partnerships with community organizations that provide after school programs centered on the arts and youth mentorship.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in dance and what led you to theater?
Karisma Jay (KJ): My mom was a dancer and when I was younger she would take me to dance classes with her all the time. I was always on the sideline, watching and absorbing everything. I started officially dancing when I was two years old, but really started dancing in the womb. I got my name Karisma because I would dance in my mom’s belly, and that was the only name I responded to so she knew my name must have been Karisma. She had an inkling that I might be a dancer. I started in local dance schools and/or at family members’ wedding receptions. I was always putting on a show or in the center of the floor performing something. In terms of what led me to theater, it was a natural transition, I loved the stage and loved to perform.
MM: You’re now working on the show “DREAM, AbunDantly!” which is based on a movie, so why did you select this film and theme?
KJ: The themes always choose me. Every year, around July or August, whether I’m watching TV or attending a Broadway play, it comes to me. DreamGirls was everywhere on TV this past summer, so it made sense. But for me, the idea of reaching for dreams really took on a different meaning. Recently, there have been way too many school shootings and so many ways in which children don’t get to live out their dreams. I’ve been hypersensitive and hyper aware of the current political climate and the ways in which we must pay homage to those who didn’t get to live out their dreams.
MM: What are the challenges of working in theater and how do you cater to Brooklyn audiences in particular?
KJ: Right now, the rising costs of running a small business are challenging. We are a Non-Profit Organization and there aren’t always a lot of funds and resources readily available. So, we need to be very imaginative with our budgets to be able to develop the high standard of programming that we want to create. Even last year at this time, we did not have a space for the school because of unfair rent hikes. Aside from that, I would say the largest obstacle is that many people don’t understand the value of the arts in our society. I find myself constantly reintroducing the importance of the arts to the community, to society—even to the parents, who might think Dance is just a cutesy thing their kids can do. At AbunDance, we like to create a bigger experience that’s more than just dance; it’s about life. I think introducing and reinforcing the importance of the arts in our society takes up most of my time, more time than the rehearsals quite often. A friend of mine once said “to cater to people’s needs is a lot more work than to cater to their skills.” I find this to be very relevant to my work.
MM: What can people expect to experience at the show?
KJ: When I was writing the script, I tapped into our current political climate and the harsh realities that all of us, of all ages, have to go through and have been going through recently. It made me very emotional. Just in typing out some of the scenarios, I couldn’t believe that the concepts and issues I was writing about that took place in the 1960’s are still relevant today, and sometimes even more so. I think that this year there are a lot of reality checks in both our script and in our story. My biggest take away and one that I want to convey with DREAM, AbunDantly is that our children are being impacted by all that’s going on. Sometimes, we intentionally don’t expose them to some of these things because we feel like children can’t handle or are not ready, but then they get ambushed with those same concepts we avoid telling/teaching them. They’re being super exposed to it right now in history. DREAM, AbunDantly chronicles the impact of these harsh realities and inspires change and hope in the viewer and in the characters. At the same time there are influences of the movie and Broadway play. There are uplifting songs, uplifting scenes; there’s lots of artistic relief.
MM: What was the costuming like for “DREAM, AbunDantly!” and do you have a favorite set or scene?
KJ: This year I added a lot more adult performers (my peers) to the performance, who are professionals with years of experience and stage time. The costumes for the show go through what people were wearing in the different decades (1960s, 1970s, 1980s). We tried to be specific and strategic about what era we are in. I would say that my favorite scene is with the four little girls who are going to turn into the most successful girl group of all time. When they are younger, their grandma asks them about their dreams and they start to recount their dreams aloud and you feel hope and then get to see those very Dreams materialize. The question in the audience’s mind becomes, how can we help children and ourselves realize dreams?
MM: Your cast consists of adults and kids, so what considerations do you take when working with child performers?
KJ: Definitely scheduling, since children can only do a certain amount of hours at a time. I also always need to provide time for snack and be very cognizant that they need breaks. It’s also about being sensitive to their needs. For example, one of the little girls who plays one of the four little girls who passes on, was scared of a loud boom/thunder sound during our Full Cast Rehearsal and we had to have a sensitive conversation, with her mom included. It truly takes a village and we’re helping our child performers work through their fears, making sure that they are ok with these new feelings. With some of the themes that they are involved in, in this performance, we are teaching our child performers how to value things more (life, family etc.). We’re helping them to develop sensitivity and to manifest awareness throughout their lives.
MM: You also teach dance workshops, so what are they like and what sorts of experiences do attendees garner from them?
KJ: In our dance classes at AbunDance, we really like to deal with the whole person and let them bring their best rather than have them aspire to be something or someone that is sometimes unattainable. The amount of years it takes to be professional at something, can be deterring to a young dancer just starting out. We try to meet the dancer or artist where they are, rather than pressuring them and imposing something on them. At our classes, everyone is welcome, of all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. We value making a person feel welcome regardless of their age or ability. There’s a lot of conversation recently about hair texture and body types. I try to be an example and support how the girls process their bodies or how the boys process where they are in the world. There is room for all of us.
MM: Overall, what are your biggest goals for the future in the performing arts and for “Dream AbunDantly!”?
KJ: AbunDance is an international brand and we want to help more people to access their own abundance. We want to reach as many people as we can. We have alliances in the Caribbean and we are developing alliances in Europe and Africa. In July of this summer we’re actually doing a cultural exchange that I’m very excited about. Dancers from the Bahamas are coming to New York to take a week of our summer intensive classes with us at AbunDance and we’re taking some of our AbunDance students to the Bahamas to take classes. Also, some of their teachers will be teaching classes in New York, while we’ll be teaching some classes abroad. For some of our students it’s their first international trip and first dance trip. I’m thrilled that we’re able to make this happen for the next generation.
* * * * *
“DREAM, AbunDantly!” will start at 6pm on Sunday, June 24, 2018. It is 2.5 hours long with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets range from $50 to $80. To learn more, visit the official website of the Kings Theatre and their Facebook. You can also follow them on Twitter via @AbunDanceBK
Also Read: Review: BB-8 Hero Droid by Spin Master
Also Read: “Twin Dolls” by JC Toys
Also Read: Review: Cat Toys by HEXBUG