After watching a group of small children enjoying the stories of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, I must again applaud the D.C. Chapter of Young Audiences, but also wonder what's ailing the Washington Performing Arts Society, an apparently elitist group that thinks it is the be-all and end-all of artistic endeavors in this city.
The WPAS is upset because, last month, I criticized the D.C. school board's education committee for failing to approve funds for Young Audiences. The argument, posed by WPAS President Harry Linowes, goes like this:
"It would have been . . . a disservice to the arts community and the corporations, patrons, women's committee and foundations which currently support such programming if one arts organization had been singled out by the Board of Education for funding because it enjoys less financial support from the business community and the public."
First, it is with delight that I now congratulate the D.C. school board, which last week finally ignored that argument and approved a $25,000 allocation to Young Audiences. Indeed, it is precisely because some efforts enjoy less financial support from the business community and, I might add, a lackadaisical public, that senstive governmental support is essential.
Second, I suspect that what the WPAS really wanted was a little publicity itself. After all, this is its 20th year providing arts enrichment programs.
But the problem is, finally, that the WPAS cannot do it all and has not, in fact, provided the kinds of grass-roots, people-oriented programs that it will take to culturally awaken folk outside of the WPAS.
As I said before, it is not enough for the Washington area to offer a wide range of artistic performances if people don't know how to appreciate them.
The WPAS boasts that each year its concerts-in-schools program provides over 800 free performances in about 520 schools. That's nice, but if the children don't know the difference between Chopin and Rick James, so what?
Here is where Young Audiences comes in. Rather than using a paternalistic approach to the cultural enrichment of minority children -- rather than merely showing up, performing, then packing up -- the Young Audience program is much more concerned about the instruction and development of young people in the audience.
At the museum, for example, there was Jon Spelman standing in the midst of about 65 children recounting tales from Hurston and Hughes as part of a program remembering the black literary renaissance of the 1920s.
He started by talking to the children about the art of storytelling, the importance of self-expression, the use of hands and gestures. It was with huge smiles that they heard him say it's all right to make up their own stories.
When he had finished his program of tales called "Three Stories Tall," the children were clearly spellbound. Anybody who has ever had a grandparent recount a personal experience knows the wonderful effects a good yarn can have -- lots of laughter from the children, their mouths agape with suspense.
After that, children were given an opportunity to ask questions and give their own impressions of Spelman's stories. When he departed, a jazz combo arrived and carried on in the Young Audiences tradition.
Now had this been a WPAS production, Spelman could have been expected to give his spiel and leave. Of course, this was not the kind of production the WPAS would have put on in the first place -- not to mention at the Anacostia Museum.
With all due respect, the WPAS has dramatically improved the performing arts in Washington. But when it comes to fostering a sense of self-worth and inspiring artistic talents in this area's schoolchildren, the real thanks should go to Young Audiences and the D.C. school board, for recognizing the importance of this unique outreach program.