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Utopian Academy For The Arts| Georgia Approved Charter Middle School » Utopian Academy’s Budding Actors To Star In “The Wiz”

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Utopian Academy for the Arts will present a revue of the Broadway musical classic

“The Wiz” at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, at the Paradise Gymnasium Cultural Center in Forest Park, Ga.

The debut performance at 4295 Hendrix Drive features a cast of 30 students working onstage and behind the scenes. It is the first musical produced by the Fine Arts Department. The timeless musical comedy was chosen for its electrifying ballads, exciting choreography, and bold set designs.

“We started casting for ‘The Wiz’ last year when we first developed the Fine Arts Department,” said Ebonne Craft, director of Fine Arts at Utopian Academy and executive producer for the musical. “We wanted to do a musical to showcase the talents of our students, but we had a very limited budget. We decided to do ‘The Wiz’ because it is part of our history.”

Parent boosters have been working with the Fine Arts Department to raise money for costumes, musicians, sets and other necessities. Campaign organizers hope that contributions will continue to trickle in before the curtain is raised on opening night.

The original production of “The Wiz” opened on Broadway 40 years ago. It was performed nearly 1,700 times and became a national treasure after it hit the big screen. Motown Productions’ Berry Gordy produced a film version of the play that became a cult classic movie. The film starred Diana Ross as “Dorothy”; Michael Jackson as “The Scarecrow”; Nipsey Russell as “The Tinman”; Ted Ross as “The Cowardly Lion”; and Richard Pryor as “The Wiz.” A live remake of the musical will be featured during the holiday season on Dec. 3 on NBC starring Shanice Williams as “Dorothy.”

Utopian Academy students watched the movie several times to help them get into character and make their production as authentic as the Hollywood version.

The performance stars 14-year-old Myrical Beasley as “Dorothy” in her first musical lead role. “I really love to sing and act,” said Beasley, who has a rich, soulful voice full of emotion beyond her years. “I thought ‘The Wiz’ would be a perfect show for me because it has everything that I like to do.”

The eighth grader didn’t think she had landed the part at first. “After the audition, I started crying because I messed up the song ‘Home’,” she said. “I was so nervous. About a week later, teachers came around to let people know who made the lead parts. I was so happy when I was chosen that I stepped outside to call my mom. This is really a big deal for me.”

Utopian Academy students also built sets for the musical; designed the promotional trailer; helped to oversee rehearsals; and assisted with lighting and props for the production.

For musical director, Erica Thomas preparing the cast to sing the popular songs of “The Wiz” has been a trip down memory lane. Thomas also played the part of “Dorothy” as a child in a school musical production of the Broadway sensation.

“It was my first musical, and my first time having the main part,” said Thomas. She has spent hours coaching Beasley to find the power in her voice to deliver the emotion behind the big songs in the musical. “It’s very inspiring to be a part of the play again. The kids are very talented. A lot of them didn’t have an arts background before coming to Utopian. They are developing an appreciation for the theater.”

Working with the play was a learning experience for students that allowed some to discover their hidden talents.

Dance Department Director Shakira Ballantyne taught Broadway-style steps to students whose faces she doesn’t usually see in her classes. The show’s biggest dance numbers occur when the main characters reach Munchkin Land and Emerald City. Scholars move vigorously to the songs “He’s the Wiz” and “Brand New Day.”

Participating in a school musical makes students “well-rounded,” Ballantyne said.

“Everyone gets to dance,” she said. “Surprisingly, the group is really picking up the choreography quickly. I played to their strengths and broke down the steps so that they understood what I wanted them to do. Some are discovering talents that they didn’t know they had.”

Veteran dancers with Utopian’s Elite Elegance Dance Team also will perform during the show when the main characters stop at a nightclub in the poppy fields leading to Emerald City.

Craft said that working with the musical helped students to realize what it takes to put on a major production from raising funds to finding a venue. “Even though we don’t have the budget of a major fine arts school, we have a passion for the arts,” Craft said.

“One of our biggest challenges is that we are starting from scratch. There are no previous shows to pull costumes and props from,” Thomas said. “We have to go out and get everything.”

The Visual Arts Department used recycled cardboard boxes and other materials to help create the sets for Emerald City and Munchkin Land. The hands-on activity was like an internship for art students. Before they began the job, they saw a video about starting a career as a set designer .

“We have five different scenes,” said Shiterria Harris, Visual Arts Director. “We’ve been painting the sets with acrylic paint, adding glitter, and using spray paint for finishing touches.”

The show has a promotional trailer that was shot and edited by Syleena Henderson, a Utopian scholar who used the tools of film industry professionals. Henderson worked under the guidance of Lauren Lawson, director of the Broadcast Journalism Department.

“Syleena is a good technical assistant,” Lawson said. “If I need someone to film a close-up. I don’t have to tell her what to do. She does a perfect job.”

Lawson said working on the production end of the musical is just as stressful as being on stage. “There are a lot of moving parts,” she said. “We have taken headshots, captured behind the scenes footage, and have completed the video trailer. Next we have to record the show from different angles and do some time-consuming and tedious editing. It’s a lot of work, but we love it.”

The Booster Club is reaching out to parents and community arts organizations to help the production raise money for cordless microphones and other needs. The production will have the ambiance of a professional show complete with a live band and a make-up artist.

Aija Boatwright, a pro stylist, will transform the cast of Utopian scholars into Munchkins in the land of Oz and the show’s beloved main characters.

“The ‘Wizard of Oz’ is challenging, but it’s going to be fun,” Boatright said.

Kelley Beasley, Booster Club president will continue to seek contributions to support “The Wiz” and future musicals. “Our parents are awesome,” she said.

Beasley, the mother of Myrical who plays “Dorothy” in the musical, is anxiously awaiting opening night. “This has been Myrical’s thing since she was four-years-old. She loves the arts. She can act and sing. I can’t hold a note. I help her to run her lines, though. It’s kind of feels like we both are playing ‘Dorothy’.”

The Wiz Cast
Executive Producer: Ebonne Craft
Music Director: Erica Thomas
Choreographer: Shakira Ballantyne
Technical Director: Lauren Lawson
Make up Artist: Aija Boatwright
Visual Arts Director: Shiterria Harris
Aunt Em: Jordan Green
Uncle Henry: Darion Turner
Dorothy: Myrical Beasley
The Wiz: Derian Neaves
Scarecrow: Lauryn Allums
Tinman: Arkayla Napper
Lion: Darion Turner
Glenda: Christina Daniels
Evilene: Briana Christian

Ensemble
Starlis Thompson
Jayda Flemming
Sydney Williams
Queen Isis Merk
Jaila Jenkins
Maia Jackson
Tarielle Paschals
Ashalah Wright
Aliyah Taylor
Madison Dumount
Ke’Mya Brandy
Niylah Peoples
Jailyn Sorrells
Kayla Stokes
Jamal Mazyck
Jamel Mazyck

Parent Boosters
Kelley Beasley, president; Keisha Murray, vice president; Chandra Pendergraft; Dori Rodriguez; Charrie Henderson; and Nneaka Neaves.

To contribute to “The Wiz” and future productions of Utopian Academy, contact the school at 770-892-1644 or email ebonne.craft@utiopanacademy.com.

Watch the WIZ trailer here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qb7ktrgc-rY

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    August 31, 2015August 31, 2015
    RIVERDALE - When 300 students at Utopian Academy for the Arts reported to classes last week, there was no sign on the lawn letting them know that they had reached the right place. The name of the school had been removed by order of the City of Riverdale.This week the sign is still bare.The City of Riverdale has prohibited Utopian from using its school sign to welcome visitors or identify the building until administrators secure a business license. School officials, however, maintain that Utopian is a public school so a business license is not necessary. The debate has caused the school to accrue fines in the hundreds of dollars for violating city code. Administrators say the fees and threats are just another attempt to “bully” Utopian into pulling out of Riverdale.“They don’t want people to know that a school exists at 6630 Camp Street,” said Artesius Miller, executive director of Utopian. “They have stripped us naked and said basically ‘You all will not have anything so that people will know that you are even here’.”Similar tactics last year resulted in delaying the opening of school for more than a week. A Clayton County fire marshal denied administrators, teachers, and students the right to access the building saying that Utopian needed a last minute inspection among other things to occupy the premises. Utopian lost 80 students after its delayed opening.Utopian’s rocky start inspired legislation to protect state-approved public charter schools from similar stall tactics. The "Utopian Academy for the Arts Act," which went into effect in July, prohibits local governments from requiring public charter schools approved and inspected by officials with the state Department of Education to be forced to obtain any other licenses from local government entities to operate their school.The law does not protect a charter school’s signage, however.In the weeks before classes began this school year, a City of Riverdale code enforcement officer left a violation notice on Utopian’s door warning administrators to take action immediately: “Remove banner until permit is issued and apply for a business license.” Miller said that a member of the Clayton County School board advised him that other county schools in Riverdale are not required to have a sign permit or a business license. “Every time that we have attempted to have some type of signage, we were told that we needed a permit or we were being fined because we are not affiliated with the Board of Education in Clayton County,” he said. [columns] [column half][pullquote left]

    Where Is Utopian Academy for the Arts? City Prohibits School From Using Sign[/pullquote][/column] [column half]

    “It got really nasty,” Miller said of a recent surprise visit from code enforcement before school began."

    Miller said that he has received calls and notes from the city warning that Utopian has accrued fees in the hundreds of dollars for violating city business license and sign codes. “It got really nasty,” Miller said of a recent surprise visit from code enforcement before school began. “The guy came and tossed the [fee list] in the face” of a school supporter.Miller took video footage of the visit that shows a code enforcement officer telling him and a school supporter that an inspection of the school’s signage was necessary because “the Georgia Department of Education does not look for stuff like this on buildings.”For the second year in a row, Miller turned to the State Charter Schools Commission for reinforcement. Miller got a letter explaining to the city that schools authorized by the commission are indeed public schools, not businesses.“Utopian Academy for the Arts is a public charter school authorized by the SCSC- a state level authorizing entity under the authority of the state Board of Education,” wrote Gregg Stevens, general counsel for the commission.“Accordingly, Utopian Academy for the Arts should at all times be treated like a public school with the privileges, rights, and obligations afforded thereto …” Utopian opened in August 2014. It was denied the right to exist by the Clayton County School board in 2011, 2012, and 2013 when the district rejected its charter application. The local denial was over-ruled by the state in October 2013. The state Charter Schools Commission granted Utopian Academy the authority to serve kids for five years as a state charter school. It was the first charter school to win approval from the new commission.[/column] [/columns] State Rep. Valencia Stovall, who supported the opening of Utopian in Clayton and co-sponsored the new law protecting charter schools from harassment, said it was “disheartening” to learn that Utopian is still having trouble with local government.“They should be treated as any other public school opening in the city,” Stovall said. “Instead, they have been hit from both sides from the City of Riverdale and the Clayton County School Board.” Stovall said that in addition to racking up fines from the city, Clayton Schools is exercising its right to charge Utopian much higher rent than the building’s earlier tenant. Utopian pays $3,000 a month to use the building compared to the Riverdale Development Authority, which had a lease allowing it to pay $1 annually for 20 years.School leaders say they refused to be forced out of Riverdale by local leaders who see them as competition. “Being in this fight for so long has been a tedious journey for me not only as a board member, but also a parent,” said Sharon Daniel, who chairs Utopian’s governing board. “We will not give up. We will educate the City of Riverdale.Utopian is a public school. We have a right to be here.” CLICK HERE FOR THIS RELEASE IN A DOWNLOADABLE FORMAT