The play’s the new thing at low-income Sacramento school

The purple fairy standing at the front of Leataata Floyd Elementary’s darkened auditorium took a deep breath before extending her hand from her heart toward a sleeping princess.

Moments later, Destiny Dixon’s gesture was mimicked by nearly 200 moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighbors, friends and strangers. It was opening night of the school’s production of “Sleeping Beauty,” and they were trying to wake the girl from her slumber.

“Oh,” sighed Tehya Smith, a small girl with yellow wings affixed to the back of her lemon-colored leotard. “Will she sleep forever?”

For half a century or more, the same could have been asked of Leataata Floyd’s stage, which seemed under a spell of its own, dormant as a cursed princess.

Until now.

Last week, the Sacramento elementary school lifted the curtain on its first play. A cast of 25 students put on two performances over two days, the culmination of more than four months of work with volunteers and school staff. And Principal Eric Chapman has no intention of letting the drama program fade away again.

The school will institute an after-school drama club when classes resume in the fall. Chapman’s goal is to put on one play a year.

“For so long, these kids have been deprived of any exposure to the fine arts,” Chapman said. “Our kids are, generally, deprived. Starting a drama program here and giving them the kinds of experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have is our way of trying to change the narrative that usually gets told about our kids and our school.”

Leataata Floyd ranks in the state’s bottom 10th percentile in student achievement based on end-of-year tests, according to data from 2013, the most recent year for which test scores are available. The school is located in Upper Land Park and primarily serves students who live in the Marina Vista-Alder Grove public housing development.

According to the California Department of Education, 16 percent of the school’s second-graders are proficient in English and 24 percent in math. About 83 percent of Leataata Floyd students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on low household income.

Many of the students come from poor families in crime-ridden neighborhoods. One little girl said she wakes to gunshots in the night. Another worries about a “bad man” in her neighborhood following little kids home. A sweet-faced boy with an easy smile and soft voice gets angry, even when he doesn’t want to. Being in the play, he said, helps him channel some of that energy into something good.

“Being here is better than being there,” said Olivia Morris, 9. “I like being here and getting to act with the other kids. There’s nowhere else where we can do that.”

Research has shown that students who participate in arts outperform their peers in virtually every way. “Sustained learning” in music and theater correlates to greater success in math and reading, according to a 1999 study done by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds were shown to see the greatest benefits.

The study states exposure to the arts increases cognitive development in children, and theater, in particular, has been shown to advance reading proficiency, increase self-confidence, tolerance and empathy levels.

“Letting our kids participate in something like a play helps to fill a void,” Chapman said. “It gives them access to an experience where they’re encouraged to imagine and hope and dream, a network of people who are supportive.”

He first brought up the idea at a January meeting between school administrators and the school’s network of volunteers, who work to provide after-school programs and community events. The first-year principal asked if anyone had any interest in putting on a show.

“It’s always been my dream to do a play,” said Chapman, who has never worked in a school that has done one.

Dale Reinhard, a volunteer from Trinity Cathedral Church, said she felt her hand rise before realizing what she was getting herself into.

In the weeks that followed, Reinhard got to work mobilizing volunteers to help with the set, staging, makeup, costumes, posters and programs. More than 50 people and organizations are thanked in the show’s playbill. Half a dozen frequented the three rehearsals per week, offering the kids coaching, feedback and positive reinforcement.

At the end of every session, Reinhard would gather the children for a round of praise. Whatever behavior she wanted to see more of – confidence, cooperation, listening – she would highlight. Every day, she thanked them for simply being there. She called it the “circle of positivity.”

Wrangling two dozen children, many of whom had never seen or participated in a play in their lives, and teaching them how to perform is no small feat. But the biggest challenge, she said, was getting them to stay focused for an hourlong show.

Destiny, the purple fairy, would grow frustrated when other kids would shirk their responsibilities or ignore instruction.

“I listen to all the adults, but most people don’t,” said Destiny, 11. “I don’t got a lot of patience for the little kids, because the play’s not going to work if everybody’s always running around.”

Minutes before the curtain rose on opening night, Reinhard darted around the auditorium, collecting children and repeating: “It’s really happening! Oh, my gosh, it’s really happening!”

Family and friends who came to watch last week packed the school’s dark auditorium, fanning themselves against the heat, with cameras and cellphones raised. One mother said she got goosebumps when the prince kissed the sleeping princess on the hand.

It’s too soon to say how incorporating theater into Leataata Floyd’s offerings may impact students, but Reinhard said even in four months, she watched her pint-sized performers change.

“Theater is a place you can go to and have your emotions come out in healthy ways,” she said. “You could see the effect that had. I kept telling the kids, ‘Each one of you is so important to this play.’ By the end, you could really see them step into their roles and feel that sense of importance.”

Nearly every child who participated said he or she hopes to continue in theater. Chapman said he hopes to expand the drama club to incorporate other aspects of the arts and go beyond acting.

“At some point, the art will be done by the artists, and the music will be done by the musicians and the play will be performed by the actors,” he said. “Then we’ll really be home.”

As the curtain fell on the final performance, the kids erupted with glee: “We did it,” they cried. “We did it!”

Even after months of fairy spells, gruesome ghouls, enchanted spinning wheels and a princess who could be awoken only with a kiss, Reinhard said, that was the most magical moment of them all.

Marissa Lang: (916) 321-1038; @Marissa_Jae