(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009.)
Rashaun Smith lies across two chairs, hands folded across his chest, eyes closed. Apparently, he’s dead.
Nearby, his brother, Rome Smith Jr., sniffles. He’s a big guy, taller than 6 feet and weighing more than 200 pounds.
“What you crying for?” asks Dominique Williams, another strapping teen with an athletic build.
Rome Smith Jr. sniffles some more, struggles for the words, finally says:
“(He) owes me 40 bucks.” Sniff, sniff. “I’m broke.”
“They said they put new shoes on dead people,” Williams says.
Cut. Cue laughter.
Improvised sketch comedy, drawn up inside the Alms Center in Bridgeton by three teens.
In Bridgeton, the Smith brothers and Williams might be better known for their prowess on the football field, all having starred at Bridgeton High School. But on this night, they’re showing off their acting chops as part of a program called “Follow Me and Lead.”
Every Monday night, a few dozen teenagers flock to the community center. Volunteers pick them up in Bridgeton, Millville, Vineland, Pleasantville and Atlantic City. Some, such as the program’s leader, Ma’Quan Dawkins, pack more than a half-dozen into a vehicle.
They bring the teens to Bridgeton to teach them acting. They walk them through acting exercises to prepare them for audiences. Sometimes it’s a one-person impersonation, other times it’s sketch comedy. Video cameras roll, manned by Atlantic City documentary filmmaker Ra-keen Davis and Julien “Jay Wes” Wesley, a music video producer from Egg Harbor Township.
The endgame? A movie, scripted by Cherry Hill screenwriter Joe Capano and supported by Primay Pictures, a production company that helped bring the movie “Invincible” to theaters.
“It’s about inner-city life and what the kids go through in their everyday life,” Capano said. “Drugs, pregnancy, cheating on the tests. It was about one kid who gets through and becomes a leader.”
“The kids came up with the idea,” Davis said.
“That’s the goal of the whole program,” Wesley said. “The kids are doing it.”
Dawkins brought them together. He knew some through moonlighting as a musician and others through social connections.
“He was telling me his idea,” said Rome Smith Sr., whose three teenage children take part in the program. “It’s not often the kids in this county — Cumberland, Atlantic — get the opportunity to participate in this. Particularly when you think about the gang situation here — Bridgeton, Millville, Vineland — this is something that matters.”
Smith has a broader perspective. He works as a corrections officer at a juvenile detention facility and coaches youth football. He sees Bridgeton’s youth as they approach high school, where all the challenges start hitting them. In an impoverished city, he knows their job prospects are limited unless they stay out of trouble.
“You’re going to work at South Woods (State) Prison, or you’re going to be in South Woods Prison,” he said.
Dawkins found another path. He was a football star at Bridgeton High School who got solid grades and an athletic scholarship to the University of Iowa. Knee injuries cut short his football career, but Dawkins stayed in school and saw opportunities as a result.
“I was an at-risk kid,” Dawkins said. “I was around the gangs. I was around the drugs. I could’ve easily been influenced by all that. But I had the football and academic scholarship, so I had the chance to go to Iowa and see something different. I wanted to bring that home for the kids here.”
After college, Dawkins came home to Bridgeton and got a teaching job at Tri-County Community Action Partnership, a social services organization that works throughout southwestern New Jersey. Tri-County’s leader, Albert Kelly, saw something he liked in Dawkins, and maybe it seemed a bit familiar to Kelly, a former Bridgeton football star and a community leader and city councilman.
Kelly challenged Dawkins to come up with a program to benefit at-risk teens. Dawkins launched “Follow Me and Lead” and built his team of volunteers. Those volunteers reached out and spread the word to teens. Union Baptist Church Pastor Albert Morgan donated space at the Alms Center, and teens came.
“The first time, they were all laughing, giggling,” said Marrill Tolbert, Dawkins’ longtime friend and sound director for the planned movie. “Now they’re all into it. You never thought you would see kids from Pleasantville, Millville, Vineland getting along. These could’ve been gang kids, but they’re not.”
Some teens have theater experience, but most do not. That makes performing for a crowd — and Davis’ camera — difficult sometimes. Davis catches even the practice sessions on film, planning to turn it into a documentary and possibly a reality show.
“They’ve never acted before,” said Wesley, the music video producer who will direct the teens’ eventual film. “They’ve come into a situation that is unfamiliar. We want to put them at ease.”
The program’s organizers say they have some talent among their teens, and that’s the point: to show these youth what they are capable of and what is possible. The group hopes to complete a film by the end of July and already has talked with studios willing to donate space.
“I look forward to it all week,” said Jasmin Caldwell, 17, of Millville. “You can see everyone growing. You see everyone coming out. It’s a good feeling to know that we got talent.”
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TO LEARN MORE
For more information on Follow Me and Lead, visit http://www.followmeandlead.org
Program leaders are looking for sponsorships as they seek to expand the program.