Brooklyn Children’s Theatre Founder Talks “Muslim Voices”

Brooklyn Children's Theatre Fast Friends
The cast of Brooklyn Children's Theatre's Fast Friends, part of their Muslim Voices series.
Photo: Shia Levitts | All photos via.

This week the Supreme Court, restored to its full membership by the so-called nuclear option, has on its plate a dispute that arose in Missouri concerning children and the separation of church and state… It’s a perfect week to have a chat with Amy White Graves, the founder of Brooklyn Children’s Theatre (BCT), who recently brushed up against the First Amendment when producing one of BCT’s programs, Muslim Voices, in a NYC public school.

I met Graves a year ago through a composer friend who works with the organization, and she told me then about Muslim Voices. I was extremely impressed in general and I knew at some point I would want to write about Graves. When I heard (on WNYC) about the recent kerfuffle involving an objection to a scene about religious faith presenting on a public school platform, it seemed a perfect time to talk to her again. She is discreet about the experience, which caused her to suspend Muslim Voices in the school pending further review of the scripts. In the interview that follows, she sincerely describes it as “educational.” With this particular group of shows unable to be mounted in a public school for now, BCT is moving forward with plans to present the shows in their community based programs and other venues this summer. Muslim Voices, which consists of four plays, was funded by a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

The way to peace and harmony is to meet and get to know different people.

Founded in 2004, Brooklyn Children’s Theatre’s mission is to bring children from all backgrounds together to learn life skills through the art of musical theater. It does this by offering extremely popular theater-creating experiences for kids from grades 1-12, playwriting workshops in the summer and the experience of recording cast albums of the original musicals BCT commissions. The deal is, the young kids (grades 1-6) participate in the commissioned shows in which every child is featured with the same number of lines (minimum: five lines). No auditioning is necessary. The older kids (grades 7-12) perform in published musicals for which they must audition. They agree to come to all rehearsals, one dress rehearsal and two performances. If they miss more than two rehearsals, BCT has the right to re-cast.

Betsyann Faiella: Is Brooklyn Children’s Theatre a place or a program?

Amy White Graves: It’s a program that I’ve run out of my apartment since 2004! We rent space as we need and we have a vision for our own space. We’re exploring different options currently and raising capital, we’ve built up the board, etc. But right now, the costumes are in my house.

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BF: How many different experiences does BCT offer?

AWG: We offer after-school programs now at three schools in Kensington, and we have community-based programs in Park Slope, Fort Greene and Greenpoint. In the summer, we have our playwriting workshops, which are based in Manhattan, and we also record cast albums of our shows. All in all, we’re serving around 1000 children and youths, including children living in family shelters.

BF: What inspired you to do this?

Brooklyn Childrens Theatre Liberty
Brooklyn Children’s Theatre production of Liberty.

AWG: The inspiration for the program came from my childhood growing up near Boston in a very white, homogeneous area. I never saw anyone different until my mother enrolled me in a theater program in the city of Boston, where I had my first little intro to other cultures. Then I went to work there, and saw my teachers making an extra effort to get kids of all cultures and backgrounds enrolled. It was such an example and inspiration. When I moved to Brooklyn and wanted to teach, I realized there wasn’t anything like it. There were acting classes, but no one actually did shows. You learn so much from working towards the final product.

BF: Where does your funding come from?

AWG: About half our funding comes from tuition and box office, and a lot comes from individual contributions. The city gives us some through the Department of Cultural Affairs, and particularly through council member Brad Lander. And of course we have fundraising events, like Spring Sing! That’s happening Monday, April 24.

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BF: Why did you decide to do a series of shows under the heading “Muslim Voices”?

AWG: A grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art came first — then the idea for Muslim Voices. In Kensington, there is a large Muslim population with many people from Bangladesh, as well as some from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

BF: The initial reaction was good, I understand, but what happened?

One play focused on a dog who was really a cat inside.

AWG: It was very good. However, I learned issues of church and state are very complicated — and there are a lot of grey areas open to interpretation. The particular show, Sailimai and the Four Riddles, based on a Chinese-Muslim folktale, sparked some controversy when it was performed at PS230. Some parents objected to it in a public school setting, as it attempts to inform students about the Islamic faith. So we pulled it from the after-school program for now. We are still presenting the Muslim Voices shows in the community-based programs, and the kids are performing at Brooklyn Music School in Fort Greene on June 3rd and 4th. They will also be performing at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan this summer as part of a show there on Islamic art.

BF: I bet you know more now than you ever thought you would about church and state issues.

AWG: Yes, it was educational. For instance, you can teach about religion in public schools, you just can’t endorse religion, and an endorsement could come in the form of saying, “My mom is a rabbi and she’s really cool.” I also learned that you can sing a song about Christmas at a holiday concert as long as you sing a song about Chanukah and a song that is secular, too. If you are going to present one religion, you need to present additional religions as well. That’s a tiny fraction of my newly found knowledge.

“All of Us” from Brooklyn Children’s Theatre’s Muslim Voices Project.
Music and Lyrics by Scott Evan Davis

BF: How do parents react to mixing morality or civics with musical theater?

AWG: I think BCT is very careful to not take a political stance — and still our plays always have a moral, like: it’s OK to be different. We did one about a dog that was really a cat inside. I never heard anything but positive reactions to that. I didn’t even have transgender issues in mind, but a mother told me her young child was able to process meeting a transgender student at school more easily because of doing the show. For the Muslim Voices project specifically, the idea is: the way to peace and harmony is to meet and get to know different people. People hate and fear what they haven’t been exposed to.

BF: I know one of your missions is broad economic inclusion; how do you accomplish that given the difficulty of some people’s circumstances?

Brooklyn Childrens Theatre Break A Leg
Brooklyn Children’s Theatre production of Break A Leg. Photo: Al Pereira.

AWG: We have a large scholarship program for low income kids, and we work hard to get the shelter children into classes. We never want money to be a deterrent that prevents kids from exploring their artistic talent, so we make theater accessible. The tricky thing is getting into the classes — they fill up within about half an hour of when we open registration. I reserve spots for children in need of scholarships or in the family shelters, so we do make sure we have children from all backgrounds coming together.

BF: How do you ensure that the kids from the shelters get to classes? It’s tough enough for parents and kids who have more stability.

AWG: We send a chaperone to get them. The travel is definitely a struggle, a real blockade for the kids. So we found we needed to provide chaperones to get the children there.

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BF: Your schedules and attendance requirements are pretty rigorous. It seems like it would be difficult to get people to commit — the parents and the children alike. Do they have to sign contracts?

AWG: Yes, it is difficult! We do have an agreement — and they don’t have to actually sign it — but the kids and the parents understand they are critical to the process, since each child is featured and everyone else is counting on them. It took a bit to figure that out — that if we didn’t insist they take it very seriously and agree to participate under the rules, there would always be some event that could take priority, and then everyone would feel justified in missing rehearsals.

BF: What’s your vision for your future as an artist educator?

AWG: We have a dream of creating a licensing wing. I want to continue to grow this program and hope it will become a model. It’s so satisfying to see an artist develop, gain confidence, come out of their shell. Some of the girls from the program have become entrepreneurs and activists. A young group of them are involved in fundraising through “Girls Read For Girls” inspired by Malala. Rosa Lander, Sonia Chajet-Wides, Kate Griem and Nora Youngelson were featured in a New York Magazine article about giving (then candidate) Trump a piece of their mind. We want to create creative thinkers, not Broadway stars. This is it for me!