Asked why he wanted to play the lead role in the musical "Oliver," Timothy Hudson didn't hesitate. "I thought I had the personality he had," the 7-year-old from Adelphi said. "And my voice is high-pitched like his."
Timothy, who enjoys singing and learned about Oliver Twist by watching a video of the 1968 film version of the musical, likes the way his character gets shoved around by other orphans in a 19th-century English workhouse. And he loves it when two other boys pick him up and he churns his legs as if he's riding a bicycle.
The eager young actor is one of more than 100 children, ages 5 through 14, participating in an eight-week drama camp at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Southeast Washington. The camp concludes Friday and Saturday with three performances of "Oliver."
Each weekday since June 21, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., children from the District and Maryland have come to the church for acting, dancing and singing lessons. The program, which costs $200 for each of two four-week sessions, was open to anyone who applied. Most students stayed through both sessions, and there were scholarships available for those who could not pay the tuition.
"It's fun working with these kids," said Kelsey E. Collie, 64, the camp and play director who is a professor of theater arts at Howard University. "For the most part, they have no theater experience. They learn terminology, stage presence and how to read [lines]."
Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist has sponsored or mounted more than a dozen productions on its chapel stage since 1996, when Richard Jackson, a longtime member and an amateur actor, suggested that the church form a drama ministry as a form of outreach. Some performances, such as last summer's "The Wiz," primarily involved church members, while others were staged by community organizations or ad hoc groups of actors from other churches and theater groups.
Jackson, whose deep voice has helped his portrayal of such renowned black Americans as Frederick Douglass and Paul Robeson, said he conceived the program as a way of "utilizing the strengths I personally could bring" to the church and community. His goal as drama committee chairman, and as a producer or director of several plays, has been to offer "wholesome entertainment the whole family can go to."
This year, the committee invited Collie to run a summer program for children as part of its year-round drama ministry. Collie has extensive experience with young actors, having founded the Howard University Children's Theatre in 1973 and a separate organization, Kelsey E. Collie Children's Theatre Experience, eight years ago.
Dressed in a bright yellow T-shirt that read, "Arms Full of Love," Collie said he agrees with Jackson that church-based theater should be uplifting. He also believes the urban church can "provide a haven for young people" to develop artistically and socially.
"It's a positive place to learn not only theater arts but lifelong skills," he said.
Collie said he chose "Oliver," a 1960 musical based on the Charles Dickens novel "Oliver Twist," because the story depicts the importance of loving and being loved and proves that a person can be redeemed despite his or her misdeeds.
Timothy, who wants to be a professional actor, said he likes the way his acting teacher, Mojo Gentry, "gives good examples of how to act." Gentry is an instructor in theater arts at Towson State University in Baltimore and one of Collie's assistants.
Aja Watkins, 13, cast in the traditionally male role of Fagin, said she has learned how to show expressions and emotions that are foreign to her own personality and experience.
Her biggest achievement as Fagin--the character who cares for Oliver and other orphans but forces them to steal--has been to learn to wear a "sneaky smile, to keep a mean expression," Aja said this week during a rehearsal break. "First it was a challenge, but now I'm playing with it."
In the original play, Oliver is a poverty-stricken orphan forced to live among street criminals in London before being saved by a wealthy uncle he never knew he had. Collie adapted the script for his child actors, playing up the humor and toning down the negative characters and the more horrific incidents in the play, such as the murder of one central character.
Collie also set the story in the United States so that the theme of social ills caused by poverty "becomes an African American issue." And some songs, such as "Pick a Pocket or Two," have been given a "more jazzy" feel, he said.
Despite its location in a church, the summer camp is not a Bible school and offers no religious instruction. Although most of the children are Christian, some are Buddhist or Muslim. And the major theme of both the play and the camp is that love is universal.
"If God is love, He is in all of us," Collie said. "Therefore God is everywhere."
The Kelsey E. Collie Children's Theatre Experience will present the musical "Oliver" on Friday, Aug. 13, at 7 p.m., and on Saturday, Aug. 14, at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, 3000 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Admission is free, but an offering will be taken. 202-957-1918.