While Beyonce or Donald Glover, the stars of the upcoming animated version of Disney’s The Lion King, may not have been on hand, Belmont Charter Network’s production The Lion King Jr. had the right amount of shine to make a school play feel like a Broadway show. Packed houses for the Friday night and Saturday matinee shows made a section of West Philly known as “The Bottom” feel like the top of Pride Rock.
As a Belmont Charter Network faculty member, and director of its Out of School Time program, Shanisha Mitchell helped organize The Lion King Jr., and believes access and resources are an integral part of student success. “When we look at the Out of School Time program, there’s not too many resources around here,” Mitchell said. “There’s not enough access to opportunity. We’re a public charter school, so if children and their families live in the community there is no lottery, [that] continues to provide opportunities to our families.”
For Mitchell, the play also served as an opportunity for local families to find joy. “Getting [families] to find these small joys and opportunities to cheer for their children is what we’re about,” Mitchell said. “With some of the obstacles our kids and our families face, they don’t really have those opportunities to cheer. For Belmont to provide that, we feel honored and grateful to share those experiences.”
Faculty member Sharon Hundley worked expeditiously over six weeks to help produce what would become 62 costumes for the ensemble of young actors. “I was on total lockdown in getting the costumes fitting to the children and making sure the costumes were total eye candy,” Hundley said.
Hundley believes that in order for the students to perform their best, they needed to feel as good as they looked. “Everybody needs to feel valued and worthy,” Hundley said. “Regardless of what their environments are and how they live, when they come here they are valued. That’s how we plant the seeds of greatness in them. You can’t expect anyone to give you their best if they don’t feel like they’re valued. These children get that from all of us at OST. We know that the greatness is within them and try to push that out.”
For parents like Lakita Smith, Lion King Jr. was as cathartic as it was entertaining. “I was overwhelmed and when [the students] started to perform I was crying,” Smith said. “For the show to be as good as it was, I am beyond proud. My mom passed away last year on the same day as the show, June 7. Miss Folashade dedicated Friday night’s show to my mom and that brought so much joy to me because last year was a devastating day and this year was like the circle of life. She’s not here in the flesh but she’s still here. The show that they put on brought so much joy.”
Baltimore, Maryland native and University of the Arts graduate Folashade Forman-Bey spent her entire life studying theater and relished the opportunity to help the young raw talent refine their skills into a polished production. “With that big a group of 45 children, it’s not easy, but at the same time it’s rewarding if you have the support of the parents. When I needed extra rehearsal time, because it took a lot to do this, I was rehearsing on Saturdays, sometimes six hours at a time. The commitment from the parents and the children wanting to be here [mattered]. They were very excited to come to rehearsal.”
While Forman-Bey was impressed by all of the students’ performances (including her son, Amunsmith’s role as Young Simba), Marquise McClain’s role as Mustafa set a special standard. “This young man beat all odds and was labeled in school as a behavioral [issue]. This play brought the king out of him. A lot of the times our young people are stereotyped as being a menace to society or not being academically inclined. All of these negative things are placed on our children, so tackling the arts may be another aspect of their greatness. They may not be great at academics or a certain sport, so this gives children that don’t feel that space of love a sense of belonging, greatness and nobility.”
The Lion King Jr. was a reminder that great stories can be told anywhere and that you never know where you will find talent. Hakuna matata.