A Night of Broadway Stars: Youth Perspectives
In front of a packed house at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Covenant House New York residents made their Broadway debuts at A Night of Broadway Stars! on June 18. They were in awesome company at the Covenant House fundraiser, sharing the stage with luminaries like Audra McDonald, Capathia Jenkins, Brandon Victor Dixon, Caissie Levy, and more.
For youth performers Reggie, Viveca, Destiny, and Eliza, it was a singular opportunity, one that so many teens and young adults dream about. In a conversation days ahead of the show, they were excited, but fearless.
For weeks, they had labored over every word, every inflection, and every onstage movement. They had the unique privilege of counting on the expert, professional guidance of teaching artists of the Songs in the Key of Me program of Broadway Inspirational Voices. BIV is a Broadway choir with a social mission to help vulnerable youth discover their voices and own their talents.
Reggie’s starting place was a poem he called, “Into the Fray.” It means, he says, “into the chaos, into the world, into the fight, into the everyday things we struggle with.”
When his BIV teaching artists heard the poem, they recommended splicing it with a piece Viveca was working on. The result was a single spoken word piece the youth called, “my Life.” Viveca says she hoped the piece would “inspire people who may be feeling down, or they’re in a bad situation, and let them know that doesn’t have to be their final destination.”
Destiny’s original composition, “Soul Cry,” is just one set of lyrics in a notebook full of songs she’s been writing. It’s about remaining true to yourself, whatever the circumstances. “You have to always stand your ground, know what you want, know what you have to do in life to succeed and be what you want to be,” she says.
Common to all of the youth performers is their desire to be seen for who they are: creative, aspiring artists and not solely as “homeless.” Homelessness is something they experienced and struggled with, but they reject the notion that it is the beginning and end of who they are as persons. Performing in front of an enthusiastic audience of more than a thousand people gave them the opportunity to showcase their talent.
Viveca, who arrived at Covenant House New York two days after Christmas, says participating onstage in a gala event like this one “honestly means a lot to me, because people can look at you in this kind of situation [homelessness] and they concoct in their heads who you are as a person. But I feel like I can get this across to people: no matter what situation you’re in, you can always be the best version of you.”
That message carried through the entire program. In one segment, a group of ten young people shared “cardboard confessionals” while Tony nominee Adam Kantor sang “Answer Me,” from the hit musical, The Band’s Visit.
The youth entered and exited the stage one at a time, each holding a sign that said something about their past—“Gang Life,” for example. After a brief pause, they flipped the sign to reveal how they perceive themselves now—“I am free,” the same sign said. When the youth reunited onstage at the end of the song, the house exploded in a standing ovation.
If Reggie had carried a sign, the first side might have said “Couch Surfing” or “Adult Shelter,” but the new side would say “Getting My GED.” Reggie had stayed behind when his mother decided to move out of state because, he says, “I didn’t want to be a burden to her.” He got a job, but his studies suffered, and he eventually left school. Now he’s pursuing his GED and thinking of joining the Marines. Poetry is his medium of self-expression. “I like to express my feelings in writing,” he says.
For Destiny, who came to Covenant House in February, “Music is happiness,” and she has relied on that ever since her mother died, when Destiny was 5. That’s when her father enrolled her in ballet and dance classes, and she got her first taste of performance. Since then, Destiny says her confidence has never flagged, and she intends to use her talents in a career in music.
Eliza is another youth performer and also claims music as a source of peace and joy in her life. “Music is my passion,” she says. “When I’m in a bad mood, music basically makes me better.”
She had just arrived at Covenant House a month before A Night of Broadway Stars!, and was feeling down. Her mother had thrown her out of the house. She had already left school before the end of her senior year because her mom had expected her to take care of her younger siblings instead. She sat down in the community room at CHNY, and started to sing in a bold, strong voice, which got the attention of other residents and staff. Four weeks later she was closing the Covenant House gala.
“Sometimes I sing just to sing, but sometimes I sing because I mean it. When I sang that song, I was feeling it,” Eliza says. “The words show that she’s not scared to do what she wants to do.”
Nor is Eliza, nor the other CHNY youth performers at A Night of Broadway Stars! They are courageous and confident and heading toward a future of their making. That earns a standing ovation.