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A Band of Angels: A play about the value of working for an education

Who needs history when you have an iPhone?
Who needs history when you have an iPhone?
Carol Rosegg

A Band of Angels

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UPDATED 5/5/15 TO ADD: Originally scheduled to run until May 10th, NYC Children's Theater received a generous contribution from a donor who attended the show and was moved by both the performance and the audience’s overwhelming enthusiasm. The donor wants to engage and invite more tri-state area students and family audiences to see this timely musical about an important time in American history, now playing through Sunday, May 17. NYCCT welcomes NYC-based schools to contact the company for limited complimentary tickets for weekday performances. Please contact the education department at: education@nycchildrenstheater.org or (212) 573-8791 x14.

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"All that's forgotten must be remembered to move forward," intone the spooky ancestors of a Bronx teen named Ella (played by Cynthia Nesbit), the lead character in A Band of Angels, now playing at New York City Children's Theater through Sunday, May 10.

Like many of her contemporaries, Ella is much more interested in her iPhone than in the stories her aunt Beth tells - or in her schoolwork. Which is why Ella's next grade promotion is in jeopardy. But, that's okay, Ella is going to be a singing star like Beyonce, so who needs an education?

Aunt Beth lectures Ella about her namesake, a performer with the The Fisk Jubilee Singers, "who used her music to get an education, not avoid it."

Eh, Ella isn't really interested.

She becomes more interested (albeit against her will), when she's transported back in time to the Fisk School in 1870 Nashville, where 21st century Ella becomes 19th century Ella. Her instinct, like so many kids used to getting whatever they want with the swipe of a finger, is to immediately ask for help. Instead, she's informed, "I'll help you help yourself."

Ella is promptly schooled in the history she missed while playing with her phone. She is taught about Africans brought over on slave ships and forbidden from learning to read and write, because "knowledge gives you the power to change things.... (It) is a useful tool" the slave-masters didn't want their property to have. She learns about the songs that kept her people alive, and even learns to sing along to such lyrics as, "If you've got a long-term goal/Sometimes you gotta shovel coal." (How's that for a growth mindset?) Initially, the idea of taking a job to pay for her education is as distasteful to Ella as the education itself.

However, once at Fisk, Ella meets characters who are willing to not just juggle several jobs in order to pay for their educations, they're willing to risk their lives.

A Band of Angels' most powerful scene comes when Maggie (La'Nette Wallace) is teaching children in her one-room school-house, only to be set upon by the Ku Klux Klan. As she sneaks her pupils out the back, the school is set aflame and burns to the ground. (While the attack happens off-stage, it is extremely well represented with the sound-effects of horse's hooves, and then the building sizzling in the dark. It might be too much for kids who have been frightened in the past by school lock-down drills, as the teacher's warnings are quite similar to what they might have heard in preparation.)

The show, written by the late Myla Churchill and directed by Tony Award winning actor Colman Domingo, is suggested as appropriate for ages 8 and up. In this case, age should be less of a guide than your child's intellectual and, most importantly, emotional ability to process difficult material like a slave being whipped by a white master (only for the same actor, Sam Ray, to later show up both as an innkeeper refusing to give the Black singers lodging, and as the inspirational Fisk choir master), and a monologue by Thomas (Bryson Bruce) about watching his mother being sold off at auction and never seeing her again.

Naturally, A Band of Angels features some terrific music, including the favorite "This Little Light of Mine," all sung acapella. And while it focuses on African-American history, ultimately it offers a lesson applicable for any child (or adult), "Impossible is not a word we use. What good is a word that makes you quit before you start?"

A Band of Angels runs April 25th – May 10th, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm and 4pm at:

Theater 3
311 W. 43rd Street (bet. 8-9th Ave.), 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10036

Tickets: $25 (general admission); $45 (premium admission)
Contact: www.nycchildrenstheater.org or 646-250-1178

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A Band of Angels shines a spotlight on the hardships African-Americans endured in trying to get an education even after the Emancipation Proclamation and Civil War. And it does it at a time when New York City, ironically, has some of the most segregated schools in the country. NYC parents finally have some school choice, but it's impossible to make an informed decision without knowing all of your options. Getting Into NYC Kindergarten is a book written for parents who can't afford a $10,000 private consultant to lead them through the process... but still care deeply about their children's education. Buy it now on Amazon at: http://tinyurl.com/NYCKBook, and read our posts on minority students in NYC private and public schools at the links.

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