Media Unit hosts 12th annual @ The BeVard Teen Performance Festival

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 08/14/10More articles
The Media Unit performs for inmates at the Justice Center last Friday evening as part of the 12th annual @ The BeVard Teen Performance Festival. From left, Destany Finney (winner of this year's Billie Holiday Award for Best Female Performer), Brianna Kent, Ana-Rachel Richardson, Kemet High and (hidden) Sequioa Kemp. Photo Chuck Wainwright, courtesy the Media Unit.

“I didn’t expect to win!” confided the slight young woman last Friday night, her eyes alight and palms held to her cheeks. “I was crying!”

Destany Finney recalled the pleasurable shock of being named best female performer at this year’s @ The BeVard Teen Performance Festival just before her third show of the day. Part of the Media Unit, the 35-year-old local teen performance and production program run by Walt Shepperd that prepares young people for careers in the performing arts – some 80 percent of their alums work in the field – Finney had already had a long day. Up early after Thursday’s tech and dress rehearsals and character development workshop, the Media Unit and their guests for the second year, the Positive Youth Troupe (PYT) from Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center in the Bronx, started Friday with the festival competition in The BeVard Room theatre at Mulroy Civic Center. They spent Friday afternoon in an interactive workshop taped for television broadcast on Time Warner here and on Manhattan’s Neighborhood Network Youth Channel (WMU). After 45 minutes for dinner, they were hauling their sets and props and equipment up the elevators in the Onondaga County Justice Center to perform both shows all over again for the 16 to 18-year-old men who are inmates in Pod 2-C.

Judging this year’s competition Friday morning – the Media Unit’s “Angels with Broken Wings: If We Had Peace” and Positive Youth Troupe’s “C.H.O.I.C.E.S.” – were Bill Morris of LeMoyne College’s drama program, Rodney Hudson of Syracuse University’s drama program, and Tony Brown of Syracuse Shakespeare. They presented the Billie Holiday Awards for best female and male performances respectively to Finney and to PYT’s Elias (“like the prophet,” he told me) Soto, Best Sound to PYT’s Akil Rivers, Best Lighting to Media Unit member Kyla McAlmont, the Bessie Smith Award for best group performance to the Media Unit and – wisely – the Curtis Mayfield Award for excellence in ensemble to both companies. The final prize came Friday night, decided by the 45 young men inside, who voted the People’s Choice Award to the Bronx visitors.

Playwright-poet Jackie Warren-Moore, acting coach for the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company, had conducted Thursday’s workshop. She and Shepperd go way back, to the days both went inside state prisons to do poetry workshops – Shepperd once taught high school English – resulting in the collectors-item anthology, “Born Into a Felony.” Warren-Moore says of this year’s festival participants, “They were phenomenal! I’d hate to be a judge because it’s a mighty close call. They really worked hard. Of course I know the Media Unit well, but I also fell in love with the other group. A couple of those kids were here from last year and they are far more serious now and they were on it!”

Both the Media Unit and Positive Youth Troupe prepare teens who want careers in performing arts and production. Both produce shows that address teen social issues through music, dancing and drama. Both insist their members keep up their school work and conduct themselves professionally. Unsurprisingly, both companies boast successful alums who come back – and give back. A former public school teacher who’d sought dance and drama classes for her own daughter founded Mind-Builders in 1978. In 1984 Mind-Builders moved to its present location and also started its Positive Youth Troupe program, directed by Gilbert Glenn Brown, expanding its mission to support literacy through the arts. Earlier last week, in order to get themselves here – @ The BeVard’s grant funding provides participants free accommodations and meals – PYT held a fundraiser performance, silent auction and reception at Lehman College in the Bronx.

Shepperd says these productions “entertain with a social conscience.” Media Unit shows have addressed violence, teen pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, civil rights, disabilities, mental illness, HIV, harassment of gay and lesbian students and – this year’s show – transforming gang “turf crews” to positive focus when a new kid comes on the block and another has dreams of a different life. Some of the young inmates joined in for their renditions of “Begotten Son,” “Street Life,” and “We Are Family,” and Destany Finney, in taking on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” showed how she won the Billie, with strong support in all areas from Brianna Kent, Sequoia Kemp, Kemet High and Ana-Rachel Richardson.

PYT’s “C.H.O.I.C.E.S.” was a surrealistic ride on the Bronx’s No. 2 subway train, with a magician-like conductor (charismatic PYT veteran Elias Soto) who suspends time to explore the sources and tragic results of some teen choices. PYT brought a large group – 21 strong – and their Hip-Hop-inflected song and dance numbers, some reminiscent of the exhilarating percussive ensemble “Stomp,” were a joy. Walidah McKnight deserves special mention for her portrayal – and voice! – in one vignette of Ronnie’s mother, who throws him out for smoking pot.

The Media Unit started hosting @ The BeVard in 1998, but Shepperd got the idea six years earlier when the Golden Mic, a national contest for groups addressing teen issues, folded. Since they’d won one Golden Mic, Shepperd decided the Media Unit could host a successor festival here, even envisioning it might become “sort of a Sundance for teens.” BeVard Award winners have included (besides the Media Unit) other area ensembles like Ithaca’s Orange Tree, Utica’s Community Action Youth and Syracuse La Liga’s Joven Guardia del Teatro, but also more distant entrants: Philadelphia’s Point Breeze, Columbia, Missouri’s InterAct, Whitesburg, Kentucky’s Mountain Dwellers Story Tellers, the Mississippi-Louisiana Injured Workers Union Youth, and Intimate Realities and PYT, both from New York City.

The performers weren’t done as they packed up Friday night. The festival wound up Saturday with an improv workshop, participant evaluations and an afternoon choreography workshop by the Media Unit’s own Ana-Rachel Richardson. Shepperd said he and PYT’s Brown want to find ways for the two ensembles to work together again, for example, rehearsing together via Skype.

Shepperd has another goal too. The Media Unit had visited Pod 2-C before in June, conducting a writing workshop with the young inmates. Introducing Friday night’s show, complete with printed programs for the audience, Shepperd pointed out the phone number and said, “So call us if you’d like to audition.”

Earlier, watching the young audience, he’d said, “For an hour and a half, they’re not here.”

This article appears in the August 19, 2010 print edition of The Eagle. To audition for the Media Unit’s fall season, reach them at 315.478.8648 or The Media Unit’s cable TV show, produced by, for and about teens, broadcasts every Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. on Channel 98 in Onondaga County. More on the Positive Youth Troupe at including links to other video clips. The PYT video clip below includes performers at this year's @ The BeVard festival. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: The Media Unit, Positive Youth Troupe of Mind-builders Creative Arts Center, Rough Times Live, Walt Shepperd, Jackie Warren-Moore, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Elias Soto, Destany Finney, @ The BeVard Teen Performance Festival, Nancy Keefe Rhodes
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.3/5 (23 votes cast)

Comments powered by Disqus

Local Entertainment Archive


Talk to Us!
We want you to know that your opinion matters. Please complete our online form and give us your feedback today.