Voices of Youth: Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit teens talk about art, politics and finding hope

Yasmin Williams, 15, a budding singer and stage actor who attends Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, loves to be around people. And, like a lot of outgoing individuals, getting used to life during the pandemic has taken some time for her.

"It's been rough," she says. "I like to go out and I like social interaction, so when we were quarantined it was crazy. I was with my parents like every day, all day." 

A lot of her time during the pandemic has been spent staying alternately with her father in Detroit and her mother in Troy. SheMosaic Singers also recently started going to school again, taking classes under a hybrid setup that combines virtual and in-person learning.

To keep up on her singing during the coronavirus outbreak, Williams has made it a personal goal to learn a new Broadway song every day. Beyond that, she's also thankful for her continued involvement with Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, an internationally renowned youth development program dedicated to helping youth find their voice through theater.

Williams first encounter with Mosaic happened in the 3rd grade, when she participated in the organization's summer program. The teen finally realized her longtime ambition of joining the group last year, when she was accepted into its 8th to 12th Grade Youth Ensemble.

While her early experiences with the group were in-person, lately she's been involved with the organization's online programs and keeping in touch with staff via text messages.

DeLashea Strawder, Mosaic's executive and artistic director, says Mosaic's annual calendar typically wraps up around May and goes on hiatus until it's time for its summer programming. This year, however, has been anything but normal. So the organization has done its best to adapt itself by offering services like online songwriting, table reading, and character work sessions. 

"We tried to switch rather quickly into virtual programming to make sure that we were still providing safe spaces for young people to connect, be themselves, and explore their art," says Strawder. "Then this summer threw us more twists and turns with all the unrest going on in the world, so we dug even deeper to see which ways the young artists needed us to show up or not show up and just provide space." 

Actor and director Rick Sperling founded Mosaic in 1992 to help fill gaps in Metro Detroit youth arts programming. In addition to its several youth performance ensembles, the nonprofit also traditionally offers school residencies, technical apprenticeships, and sponsors a competition for emerging local playwrights. But while the nonprofit is focused on improving young people's skills in these areas, Strawder says its deeper mission is to help them become more empowered citizens.

If that's the ultimate goal, it seems to be working for Williams who isn't shy about sharing her feelings about the organization's impact on her.

"My whole life, I have gone to predominantly white schools," she says. "And when I went to Mosaic I was able to be around people who encouraged me and looked like me. It helped me bring out my personality, and it helped me realize that I had a voice and I should use it."

Finding hope

For Gerard Wells, 16, Mosaic has been a ray of sunshine during a difficult time. 

When the coronavirus outbreak started, Wells, who attends Romulus Senior High School as a junior, was frustrated about Gerard Wellsmissing out on his extracurricular activities, which in addition to Mosaic also include quiz bowl, marching band, and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. To make matters worse, two of his aunts tragically passed away during the pandemic, which led him into a depression that lasted several months. Fortunately, Wells eventually overcame it.

"It was not a great time for me," he says. "Then in June I was like, 'Hey, people should give themselves time to mourn and dwell and be sad because we're human and we deserve to experience those emotions. But at some point we have to stop and realize, 'OK, this thing happened and we have to move on from here!' " 

Over the last few months, Wells has gotten more into his religion as a way to find meaning during this troubling time. He's also stayed connected with Mosaic, which he's been a member of since last year. 

During his time with the youth arts organization  he's performed in shows like "A Christmas Carol" and "Lift Every Voice" as well as community events for people who might not otherwise be able to see them. As for their online offerings, he's appreciative of the chance to work on his skills and stay connected.
"I've done a couple performances, I performed a poem and stage reading," he says. "It's virtual. I'm a very social — people would say extroverted — person, so I'd rather be in-person. [But] it's really nice." 

Changing perspectives

Like Wells, Victoria Grace, 17, also performs with Mosaic. Originally from Detroit, she lives in Farmington Hills with her father and stepmother and attends the Detroit School of Arts where she is a senior.

Although the teen was initially overjoyed about all the free time she would have when the pandemic first started, she soon realized the drawbacks of the situation.

"It was a roller coaster when it first happened," she says, "I was like, 'Thank you, Jesus, I don't have to go to school anymore,' but then it was like, 'No more shows, no more rehearsals. I can't be with the people who I really wanted to be with.' "

Now back in school, Grace is learning remotely. Detroit's public school system gave parents the option of selecting either in-person or virtual classes, and her parents opted for online lessons. 

To keep busy, Grace has been applying to colleges and working on her piano skills. The 17-year-old also continues to be active with Mosaic, with its online programming being a source of comfort and inspiration for her during the coronavirus outbreak.

"We started having our meetings with Mosaic, and they started showing they were going to be there with us through that whole process," says Grace. "So it was kind of reassuring and nice to know they were still there."

One of the highlights of Grace's recent work with Mosaic was collaborating with actor Brandon Victor Dixon — who played Aaron Burr in the Broadway production of "Hamilton" — and other ensemble youths in the program on a song called "We Are" that encourages people to make their voices heard in the 2020 election. She also participated in an online performance of a play called "Hastings Street" for a series called "Plays In The House: Teen Edition" that features live-streamed versions of plays for young people.

Even with these opportunities, however, Grace still misses doing live performances and interacting with Mosaic in-person.

"I was so used to it. When I got into Mosaic, it was school, homework, Mosaic after school," she says. "I was just so used to being in routines, like: 'Go to Mosaic. Go to Mosaic. Go to Mosaic.' And then it's like [now] I'm home doing nothing." 

Learning to listen

Beyond honing their performing arts skills, Williams, Wells, and Grace have been also paying attention to all the turbulence happening around the world right now. 

Weighing in on the extent of the pandemic in the United States, Wells is dismayed by how the United States has responded to the crisis over the last year.

"I feel like it's not the population's fault. It's definitely the people in power, because if you look at statistics [some] other countries have little-to-no cases, while we're at the top of the list for the most cases in the world," he says. "That's just saddening!"

On a personal level, he's apprehensive about how the coronavirus has impacted public gatherings and is worried he and other students at his school will miss out on their graduation ceremony next year. While the 16-year-old realizes everyday life isn't likely to return to how they were before anytime soon, in the long run, he believes the current situation will improve.

"Everything could be better and it will be better," he says. "We just have to have faith and keep on going, because that's all we can do!"

Like her fellow ensemble member, Williams is also unhappy with how the federal government has handled the pandemic and finds it troubling that the many countries have placed travel restrictions on U.S. citizens due to the extent of the outbreak here. 

In addition to that, she also feels overwhelmed by the constant stream of alarming news on topics like the police-related deaths of African Americans. At one point, she even logged off Instagram for a week to get away from all the media reports.

"It's sad because I feel like people are taking [police brutality] more seriously now because of the media," she says. "It's like, 'Now you're opening your eyes because someone posts something on Instagram, but we've been getting killed for how many years now?' It's infuriating."

Grace has difficulty comprehending the U.S. government's response to the pandemic or why more isn't being done to protect African Americans from police-related violence. 

"With the politics, I feel like it's all stupidity at its finest," she says. "Trump, he's more focused on banning TikTok, when we have other things that are way more important going on ... I just don't get it at all!"

She sees the chaos of the last few months as a sign that older Americans' priorities are out of focus and that they need to do a better job of listening to the concerns of her generation.

"I just want the adults to ask us what we want and how we feel," she says. "They're not the ones who are going to be leading in a few years, it's going to be us. So it'd be nice for them to ask us, instead of [just making decisions about] what they want to see!"

Voices of Youth is a Second Wave Media series that captures youth perspectives during the COVID-19 response and recovery. It is made possible with funding from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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