Monday, March 21, 2016

Making Art in the Inner City

The Cast of Shadows of War at South Camden Theatre Company

Perhaps no city in America has suffered more from the steady decline of our urban areas over the past fifty-years than Camden, New Jersey. The story of Camden is not much different than many other cities - white flight, loss of manufacturing jobs, governmental neglect and mismanagement, loss of tax income - leading to a once economically and culturally vibrant urban area becoming a literal shell of its former self. As Earl Morgan of the New Jersey Journal puts it, "Ride the Amtrak past Camden and you'll see something resembling the aftermath of a disaster movie with one dilapidated and abandoned neighborhood and building after another."

But at least one little corner of Camden is fighting back and it is doing it with art. On that corner stands the lovely little 96 seat Waterfront South Theatre, home of the South Camden Theatre Company. This professional theater is the dream project of Founding Producing Artistic Director, Joe Paprzycki, a playwright, whose father ran a tavern in the very building where the theater is now housed. The mission of this little theater is to bring new life to the community and encourage residents from around the region to return to Camden for a positive experience that will aid in the rebirth of the community.

For the past two months I have been a participant and witness to these efforts. The South Camden Theatre Company just completed the run of a one-act play festival, Shadows of War, which presented four one-act plays on themes related to the tragedy of war, all written by regional playwrights and presented by regional actors and directors. To emphasize the community nature of these productions, South Camden Theatre partnered with the organization, Backpacks for Veterans, a group that collects toiletries and life essentials for homeless veterans. Patrons and participants donated socks and money to this worthy cause. At each performance, veterans in attendance were recognized and applauded by the audience.

I had the great pleasure to act in one of the plays and to join together with a group of dedicated and talented people both on-stage and behind the scenes who were engaged in making art with a purpose. Each day as I drove to a rehearsal or performance through the streets of Camden, I witnessed close up the struggles of the people of Camden, the boarded up former grocery and hardware stores, the abandoned homes, the homeless sleeping on the sidewalks. But also each day, as I parked on the street and got out of my car, a neighborhood resident would nod at me, give a friendly smile or say, "Hi" and I could see that what South Camden Theatre Company is trying to do is working. There is hope for Camden because this little jewel of a theater has dared to bring light in the form of art to these dark and dusty streets.

And because I am a teacher, my thoughts ran to the children of Camden. And particularly to the arts in the life of the children of Camden. We know for a fact that art, both visual and performance based, is vital to the education of children. Among many other things, art inspires creativity, enhances critical thought and problem solving abilities, provides motivation for children who are not as academically inclined and helps keep kids in school.

And yet, in times of tight budgets, arts education is often the first thing to be cut. The recession of 2008 was devastating to school budgets throughout the country, but inner cities were especially hard hit and arts education in those cities was hardest hit. The current emphasis on core subject matter and standardized testing has also had its impact. When language arts and math are tested and art is not, art tends to be de-emphasized. Where tests are given the most power, again in inner cities, where schools and teachers may be punished for low test scores, the damage is multiplied.

The availability of arts education has dropped precipitously over the last 20 years and that drop has been felt most in schools serving African American and Hispanic students. In 1990, approximately 50% of African American and 47% of Hispanics had access to arts education in school. By 2008, those numbers had dropped to 28% and 26% respectively. Since 2008, budget cuts have made the situation even worse, with dance and drama programs suffering the most. You can read more about these statistics in this report from Law Street.

What we all must understand is that the arts are vital to the health of a city and to the health of a school. And we must realize, further, that making art is the most human and humanizing of activities. Art brings people and communities together. Art revitalizes neighborhood economies. Art education must be a priority of our schools and our school policy makers.

The future audiences for Joe Paprzycki's plays at the South Camden Theatre Company are sitting in classrooms in Camden right now. Are these children being well prepared to be engaged participants in the art that is being made there?