Thirteen-year-old actor Tony Felix probably never thought the day would come when he would sport high-heeled platform boots, psychedelic vest and long wig while singing and gyrating to Rick James’ disco-era smash hit “Superfreak.” But that’s what he did every night during the summer run of the hip-hop musical drama “Unplugged” at Anthony Bean Community Theater.
Felix is one of about 100 young performers, ages 8 to 16, who participate in the summer theater camp and year-round acting school that have made Anthony Bean a fixture of the New Orleans theater community for the last eight years.
The school is the brainchild of Anthony Bean, who in 1998 saw a need for a theatrical outlet for local children, particularly African Americans.
“When I moved back to New Orleans from Los Angeles, I noticed a lack of culturally diverse theatrical opportunities for black children here in New Orleans,” says Bean. “This school needed to be here.”
With a student body of mostly inner city African Americans, the theater is
a means of helping children gain confidence as performers, using their own life experiences as a foundation.
“We are Stanislavsky-based,” says Bean. “This is the perfect method for our students because it deals with emotion. African Americans, by nature, are an emotional group. We go right to the jugular and ask why a character does what he does. We find the emotion and then figure out how to deal with it.”
Bean notes that the majority of his students have life experiences that go far beyond typical suburban issues. What may shock many white children would cause almost no reaction from his kids, he says.
“Inner city youths react very differently to extreme situations, and it is our job to tune into these reactions and emotions and figure out why.
This way we can teach them a better or more rational way to solve their problems,” he says.
Bean also cites a trend toward “homogenizing” theatrical learning as
a motivation for launching his school.
“Shakespeare, Williams, Albee … these are all brilliant writers, but I do believe that many African American playwrights are often ignored. I think this robs children, both black and white, of the opportunity to expand their emotional base using material from writers like Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson and Maya Angelou.”
Bean sees theatre as a stew with many seasonings. “Everyone adds a
little something to the stew. But if you put a lid on it, which often happens in this city, creativity is stifled.”
Bean’s school is open to all children, regardless of color. He says the fact that the white students sometimes react differently to certain plays and scenes “helps everyone gain a better understanding of the material and
ultimately builds their confidence.”
High drama is not the only pull that draws talented youngsters to this stage. Their most recent production, “Unplugged,” was a collection of songs and scenes performed with a live band. It allowed students to strut their musical as well as acting chops in a variety of scenes with diverse actors.
Actor Angeletta Grade sees it as the ultimate learning environment. “There are so many culturally random people in school with us, yet we all fit in,” she says. “It really adds to the experience.”
Nearly a third of the students work backstage, where they quickly discover the importance of technicians. Follow spot operator Joshua Palmer says his post allows him an unusual vantage point. “Everyone is important. Working backstage gives me another point of view, and I like that,” he says.
Bean has found it a good idea to occasionally rotate people through the technical jobs. “Sometimes I make the most talented performers run lights or sound — it gives them a little humility.”
At times, the theater has provided an outlet for students dealing with tragedy. Tony Felix, a star pupil who appeared in the New Orleans-based television series “K-Ville” and a local staging of “Waiting for Godot,” recently lost his father, a New Orleans Police Department officer. Bean wanted to help the youngster deal with his grief.
“I wrote a play about a young man spending his first Christmas without his father,” says Bean. “I asked him if he felt up to performing it during the holidays, and he said, ‘I’m an actor. It’s what I do.’ To be able to give him this opportunity is one of the main reasons our school is here.”
With the physique of a linebacker and a commitment to discipline, Bean comes across as gruff and hardnosed. But the exterior sometimes belies his taste for humor and deep passion for theater. As he works to build a powerhouse training venue that can help launch students on stage, film or television careers, he also tries to maintain a personal focus.
“We encourage craziness here,” he says. “If the kids are having fun and learning how to deal with their emotions, we’re doing our job.” •