By Angelia D. McGowan
Who knows Marvin Gaye? Who knows Gladys Knight and the Pips? Who knows Diana Ross? Who knows Michael Jackson?
The very thought that every being on the earth does not know these legendary artists is an atrocity to older generations that can recall a Motown hit for every emotion that comes to mind. But when cast members from Motown The Musical posed those questions of about 50 middle school students, the sound of crickets overwhelmed the room.
Eventually hands shot up as iconic names were called, but it was nerve-wracking to witness the initial silence and young eyes searching the room for answers. The cast members were not derailed. They successfully connected the dots for the students by informing them of the Motown influence, naming the movie “Sister Act,” which featured Motown hits.
The students and cast members were brought together by the Bringing Back the Arts Foundation, created by Denver’s First Lady, Mary Louise Lee, to restore art programs in Denver Public Schools, expand access to the city’s cultural institutions for all residents and spotlight local performing artists. And that’s exactly what this 2-hour gathering succeeded in doing.
The students from Hamilton Middle School and Florida Pitts Waller learned about the Motown influence and also took the stage to share their own talents when invited by the professionals.
They danced, sang, rapped and played the piano in front of the cast members who were genuinely impressed. Lee handed out Motown memorabilia to those courageous enough to share their talent.
“It’s important they have an appreciation for the arts. That’s the purpose of having them here,” says Lee, who held the event at Cableland, the 19,500 square-foot official residence of the mayor of Denver. “I want to make sure I introduce them to not only local but national artists.”
Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock and the First Lady initially saw the show on Broadway in New York. Upon their return to Denver, she let the Denver Center know how great it would be for it to be in Denver.
“What an opportunity for youth and citizens of Denver to experience Motown,” said Lee, who saw the show at least five times during its three-week run at the Buell Theatre at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts complex.
It wouldn’t be a Motown event without hearing the Motown sound. Several hits including, “Get Ready” and “Dancing in the Streets,” were performed by cast members Clifton Oliver, Martina Sykes and Patrice Covington. The students also learned tidbits that the general public may not know or have forgotten, including the fact that Berry Gordy, Jr. documented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches on records.
The two youngest cast members, 13-year-old Leon Outlaw, Jr. and 14-year-old Reed L. Shannon, who alternate as young Michael Jackson, also performed a medley of Jackson’s songs. During the conversation with the local students they shared their performance history and the fact that they still needed to study and do their homework on the road.
In addition to learning about Motown’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, the young artist also learned about social issues ailing today’s society.
Keith Shannon, Reed’s father, said the show was booked in St. Louis during the Ferguson riots in November 2014. They were 15 minutes away from the infamous city during the unrest following the announcement by the St. Louis County grand jury not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9, 2014 fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Shannon travels with his son on the tour.
“We could see the fires from our hotel room,” said the army veteran who stresses that he was not planning to have certain conversations with his son until he was older, but because of Ferguson he was forced to do so. It was perfect timing for him to explain the stories behind the music of Motown.
Yolanda Greer, assistant principal at Hamilton Middle School, thanked the First Lady for holding an event “to connect the students to the arts in real time. Also to show professionals to students, and also share the space for students to show their talents.”
There’s a popular saying that you’re never too old to make your dreams come true. Linda Stewart, who heads the public relations for the tour, left the students with a variation of that saying: “You are never too young to see your dreams manifest and come true.”
Sykes, who plays Mary Wells in the show, said to the students who wanted to be artists, “Smile and do it with boldness. Share your gift.”