John Anthony Smith is a 7th grade student who was plucked from drama class by his teacher, Art Gilliard, to be the youngest cast member in The Me Nobody Knows. The award-winning musical explores the thoughts and feelings of inner city kids living in New York City in the 1970s.
"It's telling you about how these kids are growing up and what they're going through with song, dance, and dialogue," says Smith, who is a member of his school's Singing Eagles and a lead vocalist in the Dream Merchants Reggae Youth Band.
Gilliard, a drama and public speaking teacher at Charleston Development Academy Public Charter School, also serves as artistic director of Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, a local African-American theater company. AFTC was founded in 1995 and has since produced more than 30 plays. Gilliard submitted The Me Nobody Knows to the Piccolo Spoleto committee and the play was chosen for its positive message. Violence, drugs, poverty, and other social issues are explored from the perspective of kids and teens.
The 1970 musical was inspired by an anthology of writings from nearly 200 inner city New York City students collected and edited by their teacher Stephen Joseph. Samples of their work were combined with musician Gary William Friedman's soft rock music and lyrics from Will Holt for the musical we know today.
"I have a desire to reach out to younger people," Gilliard says. "Young people are often ignored, and a way to deal with that is to confront what's on their mind."
The performance consists of 11 cast members — including adults in teen roles — sharing stories about life and what it means to be young. Three graffiti-covered boxes and a trash can are the backdrop for the fast-paced musical numbers on center stage.
The lyrics and dialogue are alternately funny and heartbreaking, and while the show holds an important message for kids, there are some mature situations. But your kids have probably heard it all before — after all, the script comes from their words.
Before rehearsals begin, Gilliard calls everyone into a circle to hold hands and pray. This moment of reflection is in keeping with the show's theme of hope and the promise of art to make a difference.
"It's always been about a desire to make this a more comfortable environment for our future," said Gilliard. "I hope they see the hope for change."
Piccolo Spoleto. The Me Nobody Knows. $25, $20/students, seniors. June 2 at 3 p.m.; June 3, 4 at 8 p.m.; June 5, 6 at 6 p.m.; June 7 at 3 p.m. Footlight Players Theatre, 20 Queen St. (866) 811-4111