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Using Her Voice to Rise Above

The week at Beth Israel is rarely spoken of again. Felicia resumes her 12th-grade life. Her follow-up care consists of a daily meditation book called "Faith in the Valley: Lessons for Women on the Journey to Peace." Felicia takes the book everywhere and panics if she misplaces it. Soon the pages are dog-eared and full of underlines. The meditations of March turn to the meditations of April.

"So you think you are not good enough, not God enough" she reads aloud one day. "You are a sprout. God is a good gardener."

For a citywide talent show, Felicia wants to sing about teenage life in Newark. "I'm just saying, who holds tomorrow?" she asks. "You are not promised even today. Bullets ain't got no names on them." (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Braving the Streets Her Way: Music has gotten Felicia Holt through the hardest moments of her life.
_____Live Discussion_____
Monday, 11 a.m. ET: Washington Post staff writer Anne Hull will be online to discuss her series on gays in America.
_____Gay in Real America_____
In the Bible Belt, Acceptance Is Hard-Won (The Washington Post, Sep 26, 2004)
A Slow Journey From Isolation (The Washington Post, Sep 27, 2004)
Braving the Streets Her Way (The Washington Post, Oct 3, 2004)
About This Series

With the Holt family's permission, Washington Post reporter Anne Hull began following Felicia after the stabbing death of her friend Sakia Gunn. The reporter spent hundreds of hours with Felicia and her friends as they struggled with the aftermath of violence, accompanying the girls to school, basketball games, family dinners and meanderings through the neighborhoods of Newark. The events and direct quotes in this story were witnessed by the reporter unless otherwise noted.

Gunn's accused killer, Richard McCullough, 29, is scheduled to be tried in November in New Jersey's Essex County. He is charged with murder and bias intimidation.

Felicia had thought so much about this moment. What song to sing. What outfit to wear. Piano or no piano. After auditioning at West Side, she had earned a spot in the citywide talent show at Newark's grand old Symphony Hall. She viewed the night as a chance to reclaim herself. Everyone thought they knew her: Felicia the A-G, Felicia the gay girl. The labels boxed her in.

They follow her even as she enters the dressing room on the night of the show. Other contestants are at the makeup mirror applying their cocoa butters and hair jams as Felicia comes in with clothes slung over her shoulder. "Man, I wish I was gay," says one of the girls, giving Felicia the once-over. "Get a $5 haircut, get a shirt and call it a day."

That night, the 28 contestants are delivered by limousine to the front of Symphony Hall, a gilded and gargoyled performance space where Toscanini and Horowitz played. This is a shot at the big time: a $2,500 grand prize and a slot at amateur night at the Apollo Theater. Velvet ropes and police barricades hold back the surging fans. Mr. Vann is here, and Mrs. Perkins, and Valencia and a few other Lady Rough Riders. Aunt Shakira is also here. They are all waiting to see Felicia step out on the red carpet. Flashbulbs pop as the Escalades and stretch Navi's deliver contestants under the marquee that announces "Newark Idol Search."

A sleek black Town Car pulls up and the door cracks. A four-inch heel touches the carpet. A silhouette moves behind the smoked-glass window. When the contestant stands, the West Siders go wide-eyed.

Felicia Holt is wearing a dress. A drop-dead sexy dress.

Mr. Vann claps like a gentleman. Valencia and the other A-G's put it down for the streets, yelling, "You gotta work, ma!" Mrs. Perkins beams, "Look at my baby!" Felicia smiles as she totters awkwardly on her skyscraper heels. One hand waves while the other moves self-consciously to cover all this newly exposed skin.

When she returns to the dressing room, the other contestants realize the drubbing they just took by the tomboy.

"She makes me sick!" says one of the girls, an arts magnet school diva changing into a black dress. "She needs to give me her body. She don't show it!"

Felicia sits alone at the mirror. She's back in her sports bra and wife beater T-shirt. Latoya Grissett, her friend from West Side and a fellow contestant, leans down and holds Felicia's gaze in the mirror. "You're fine as hell, girl."

Felicia nods.

Two hours pass before the emcee calls her name. "Please welcome, all the way from West Side High, Felicia Holt!" The dress is gone, replaced by a pair of men's blue linen pants and blue alligator shoes, like P. Diddy in the Hamptons. In Felicia's pocket are the two photographs of her grandmothers. The lower seats are jammed with 1,200 screaming fans and four VIP judges scribbling their secretive notes at a table in front. Felicia walks to the microphone. The stage is empty. She has decided to sing without musical accompaniment. And while almost every other contestant chose to perform a bombastic pop ballad or R&B hit, Felicia has decided on a Kelly Price gospel tune called "I Don't Know About Tomorrow." She had told Mr. Vann that the words were custom-made for her.

The song is so blatantly old-fashioned, so unapologetically spiritual, that at first the audience is silent. Felicia moves fearlessly about the stage, her powerful alto reaching up to the gold-faced gargoyles. She is flying, winged, floating away from the wooden planks beneath her shiny alligator shoes.

It doesn't matter that Felicia will not win tonight. What matters is right now. "Sing it!" the hip-hop thugs shout. "Take it downtown." Arms wave in the air like at church. Felicia appears not to hear the calls or see the hands swaying. Her eyes are closed. She is singing for no one but herself.

I don't know about tomorrow

I just live from day to day

And I don't borrow from its sunshine

For its skies may turn to gray

Word is born. Turning her back on the thunderous applause, Felicia disappears into the folds of the curtain.

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