‘Letter From Birmingham Jail:’ Kids teaching adults

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AnnaMarie Horn learned a lot about working with kids and teens.

“They truly care what’s going on in the world, and they are capable of creating the most beautiful art when given the opportunity,” she said.

Horn has made a career from giving such opportunities.  That includes directing an all-youth production of “Letter From Birmingham Jail” — Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic open letter written while imprisoned in Alabama in 1963.

For the third year, Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church is hosting a presentation of “Letter From Birmingham Jail” — but this time without adult actors. The performances reveal events related to King’s letter that outlines the need for change and peaceful protest to make those changes.  Horn was a member of Sycamore Creek’s 2020 production.

The professional gospel singer, touring musical theater member, and artist-in-residence for numerous area schools is uniquely qualified to helm a different interpretation of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that features only kids and teens.  

Touring schools and performing to youngsters is something Horn considers a highlight of her singing career.  She credits her performance skills to “natural born talent developed through various opportunities.”  Since elementary school, Horn was educated in the arts and appreciates its importance.

Horn founded Hope Central Urban Arts to provide inner city kids with similar opportunities.  Since 2014, the organization has offered music and theater classes to kids while such programs keep being reduced in public schools.  

Classes in creativity are offered Monday through Friday after school at the Windemere Park Charter Academy.  “You must attend the school in order to enroll,” Horn said.  The classes provide an affordable after school childcare — an issue that also motivates Horn. 

The four “Letter From Birmingham Jail” stagings are a joint production between the Sycamore Creek Church — led by Tom Arthur — and Hope Central Urban Arts.  Each performance will be livestreamed. 

COVID dealt a harsh blow to the company. “We had to quarantine the entire program last year, as well as having various students quarantined at different times,” Horn said. “We stay masked at all times, and masks are required for the show.”

The 15-member “Letter From Birmingham” cast comes from Hope Central Urban Arts members and students and participants from the community. Actor’s ages range between six and 17.  Horn’s five children range from six to 14.

This script is slightly different for the kids’ version. “This was rewritten to be palatable for children and youth,” Horn said. “MLK used language that most ordinary adults wouldn’t recognize.”

Something Horn said she would remember most about the production is “having a student who has never participated in something like this find their voice and perform beautifully.”  

She was surprised by the willingness of the kids to tackle the subject.  

“They seem to connect with the script because it addresses the same issues they are dealing with today,” she said. “We’ve come a long way and yet we have a way to go in order to see equality and equity within the U.S. for its citizens, especially its African-American citizens.”

Performing the “Letter” is important to Horn because she understands — as King preached in his missive — how continued conversations lead to actions.

“By engaging our children and youth we let them know they are leaders,” she said, “people with power and influence who can do good to everyone everywhere, every chance they get.”

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