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Youth Org Opening Act Puts the Spotlight on Its Students

By Ashley Morton

HBO talent and award-winning performers lent their voices to original student works at the arts program’s 13th annual gala.


Race. Gender identity. Depression. Drug use. School shootings. These were just some of the topics Opening Act’s Play Reading gala touched on this year. “I know I’m more than just a street kid ... I can live on the stage,” proclaimed Keybo Carillo Jr., one of the students in the theater program exposing young New Yorkers to skills they can apply to their futures.

Held at New World Stages, Opening Act’s 13th annual gala was presented with the theme “In Their Own Words.” “So few students have had the opportunity to control the narrative. To tell their stories,” executive director Suzy Myers Jackson explained at the start of the event. This year’s production, comprised of plays, poems, monologues and song, highlighted just that, with every piece an original work from Opening Act’s students and alumni.

Alongside professional actors such as Mustafa Shakir (HBO’s The Deuce), Joe Morton (Scandal), Asia Kate Dillon (Billions), Tony Goldwyn (Scandal), and Tracie Thoms (Rent), student and alumni stepped onto the stage to perform their pieces. The first, Intersections, featured a play reading-within-the-reading, in which a group of actors help a young playwright realize that defining and casting parts shouldn’t be limited to stereotypes.

Opening Act HBO

Another group, of students only, illustrated what it's like to face the pressures and anxieties of growing up in today’s world, through movement and voice. Expanding on issues of depression, empathy, and mental health through their own points of view, the chorus of students ended with a directive for the audience: “Talk to your kids.”

The final reading, Security Strike, told the story of two trials after a pair of school shootings — one committed by a student, another by a school security guard. The reading vocalized the students’ own confusion of feeling unsafe in their schools, and their awareness that race plays a key role in whether they are perceived as a “threat” or as a kid who “needs help.”

“I was pleasantly delighted by how smart and nuanced the writing was,” shared Shakir after his performance in Security Strike. New to the program, he described the experience as “soulful,” admiring “how these youngsters have poured their hearts into the work.”

Industry pros, including casting director Alexa Fogel and The Deuce’s Dominique Fishback, also helped guide the students behind the scenes: “This is my first year with Opening Act,” said Carillo before his spoken word performance. “Dominique helped me tighten [it] up. It really makes a difference.”

Through all the deep and serious topics, the students found glimpses of humor, keeping the evening enjoyable and celebratory while shedding a light on the very real fears and issues teens grapple with every day. Security Strike’s final message, “Change starts with a conversation,” exhorted adults in the audience to empower young people to shape their own futures, and hear their voices. Opening Act is helping them find that voice.

Opening Act HBO

Read about last year’s Opening Act gala presentation, Hear Me Here.

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