Left to right: Lauryn Smith, Brooklyn Jefferson, Amiable Arts Foundation CEO Amia Edwards and Jacob Jefferson attended the Amiable Awards ceremony, which honors students participating in the 3.2.1 Action! after-school program. Photo courtesy Amiable Productions 

Mississippi Actress Starts Campaign to Help Fund Youth Arts Program in Jackson

JACKSON, Miss.—Amia Edwards, 8 years old at the time, gathered in the living room with her mother and siblings. It was movie night, and the night’s pick was “The Color Purple.” The movie arrived at the scene with Sophia’s monologue at the dinner table, where she had finally broken her silence after prison and abuse made her a shell of herself. It was in this scene that Sophia came alive and was born again.

The scene captivated Edwards in how Oprah Winfrey, playing Sophia, moved from laughing like a maniac to rocking back and forth, tears welling her in eyes as she recounted her life to Celie and thanked her for everything she had done for her.

“I memba that day I was in the sto’ with Miss Millie. I was feeling real down. I was feeling mighty bad. And when I seen you, I know there is a God. I know there is a God,” Sophia told Celie, crying.

Amia Edwards’ first movie role was in J. Lee Productions’ 2014 film “Karma,” which is an adaptation of his play “No Good Comes to Those Who Do Wrong.” Photo courtesy Amiable Productions

Sophia resonated with Amia Edwards. She was a full-figured Black woman who spoke her mind, and this scene showcased Winfrey’s range as an actress for the young viewer. Her mother watched the “The Oprah Winfrey Show” religiously—and in turn so did her daughter—but this scene allowed Edwards to recognize and appreciate the Mississippi native’s duality as a talk-show host and actress.

“I remember her talking about what it was like to be a plus-size person being an actor and how she was trying to lose weight, and Steven Spielberg called and told her, ‘Don’t drop a pound,’” Edwards told the Mississippi Free Press. “And so I secretly coveted acting ever since then.”

Acting Dream Deferred

Amia Edwards’ mother did not know where to take her daughter to get started on her acting journey, so Edwards put her dreams aside. She attended Jackson State University and started a career in broadcast journalism, working for WLBT for several years. After leaving Jackson for a while to pursue other markets as a news producer, she returned to the capital city and obtained her real-estate license.

“I still wanted to be an actor, but (I was) still not pursuing it, still scared,” Edwards said. “I got a job as a community outreach coordinator, moved to the nonprofit sector, and they had massive layoffs, and I got hit. And so it was then I decided I’m gonna go after it and see what happens.”

J. Lee Productions posted on his social-media accounts that he was having open auditions for a film called “Karma,” and after showing a house in Madison, Edwards went to the audition and landed a part in the film. That role was the beginning of her acting career, and she would go on to be cast in several other J. Lee projects.

Acting has taken Edwards to cities like New Orleans and Atlanta, and her experience helped her write a short piece—“Got a Light?”—for her church, New Jerusalem. She recorded the piece, which is about a woman suffering from substance-abuse issues, and shared it online.

Edwards also submitted the piece to short film festivals across the world and won awards for best actress at festivals in New York and Germany.

Amia Edwards poses with a student who won an honor at the Amiable Awards, which the Amiable Arts Foundation held at the Mississippi Museum of Art. Photo courtesy Amiable Productions

Edwards’ work ultimately culminated in her launching the Amiable Arts Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that helps prepare students for vocations, college, and careers in film, theater and performing arts.

“In my early years, I knew I had this talent, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” the actress said. “When my mom would maybe entertain me doing something, it’d be these little gimmicks you hear on the radio. You need to pay $3,000 to do this, or you gotta pay $600 for headshots and all this. I just wanna cut a lot of that riff-raff out.”

Through Edwards’ nonprofit’s “3.2.1. Action!” after-school program, students learn how to write, direct, produce, edit and market their own films. The program, a partnership between the foundation and funding partner Jackson Public Schools, takes place at six JPS schools: Bailey APAC Middle School, Northwest Jackson Middle School, Callaway High School, Wingfield High School, Forest Hill High School and Provine High School.

“For ‘The Wiz,’ we had a student director; she made the calls on everything,” Edwards said. “Of course, we were mentoring her and very close by, but she made the calls. She knew what it was like to walk with a walkie-talkie and be on set.”

Once the high-school students have finished their films, the program then presents their works at the short film festival the nonprofit organizes at the convention center.

“That’s where I really use my industry friends, where they talk to actors who have a credit to their name,” Edwards said. “(Students) talk to makeup artists who can teach them how to make realistic bruises. They can talk to a screenwriter, who’s written several blockbuster films. And it’s via Zoom.”

‘Black Excellence’

Siblings Brooklyn and Jacob Jefferson noticed flyers being put up around their school, advertising auditions for the play, “The Wiz.” The middle schoolers had no idea what the “3.2.1. Action!” program was, but with piqued curiosity they decided to audition.

“Ms. Amia showed up one day and she seemed super eager to work with us, and it felt like she kind of took us under her wing,” Brooklyn told the Mississippi Free Press. “She was always giving us advice. She was actually doing things to help us out for people who actually were serious about acting.”

Amiable Arts Foundation Founder Amia Edwards takes a photo with the cast of “The Wiz,” a production she put on last year with middle schoolers from Bailey APAC Middle School and Northwest Jackson Middle School. Photo courtesy Amiable Productions

Through the program, the seventh grader found that she gravitates more toward being in front of the camera and having a moment in the spotlight. She auditioned for a leading role of Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, and landed the part.

“I don’t wanna say I’m a mean person, but I wanted to go out for Evillene because I wanted to challenge myself,” she said. “I feel like I always play the protagonist, or like the good person, so I just wanted to see what I could do.”

Jacob auditioned for the role of the Tin Man, a character that he enjoyed playing due to how smooth he is, the eighth grader described. The program allowed him to network with casting director Matthew Morgan, who gave him sound advice about auditioning.

“I really learned a lot about how I should dress for my auditions and how I should carry myself through the auditions; (Morgan) really taught me a lot of things,” Jacob told the Mississippi Free Press. “I also got better from voice lessons from one of my voice teachers, who helped me with my singing.”

Jacob sees himself doing more acting in the future, in addition to more behind-the-scenes work. He helped to paint and design the set, which is work he thoroughly enjoys. Janelle Jefferson, the siblings’ mother, said she encourages her kids to expose themselves to different types of activities, whether it be sports or the arts.

Students dress up for the Amiable Awards, which emulates ceremonies such as the Oscars or Tony Awards to celebrate the students’ efforts while making their films. Photo courtesy Amiable Productions

“We want everybody to be well rounded, so that you find your niche and things that you really enjoy,” Janelle Jefferson told the Mississippi Free Press. “You can only find that if you expose yourself to a lot of different things, so we really work hard to ensure that they get to be a part of a lot of things.”

Her kids were already involved in theater through the Academic and Performing Arts Complex (APAC), but Amia Edwards and her organization presented an opportunity for the children to be involved in productions that were more culturally significant.

“When they got an opportunity to do ‘The Wiz,’ she brought this opportunity for them to be a part of a production that really celebrated Black culture, Black excellence,” Jefferson said. “I know they have to learn the classical plays, but this one, they really got to express themselves more.”

“I could tell at times that they felt comfortable ad-libbing and being unapologetically who they are and representing our culture,” she added. “That was very pivotal and important for me.”

‘Full Support’

Edwards rewards students for their hard work with the Amiable Awards, a red-carpet event akin to the Oscars and Tony’s where kids win awards and dress to the nines. The last award ceremony was at the Mississippi Museum of Art and featured a red carpet, photographers and food that Chef Nick Wallace prepared.

“It was really cool to see them with their friends and (to see the) relationships that they built because they’ve worked together on set or they made these films together,” the actress said. “It was a beautiful night, for sure.”

Jacob Jefferson attended last year’s awards ceremony, where he won an award for best actor for his role as the Tin Man. The eighth grader said he enjoyed himself and that it was nice to dress up in a suit and tie similar to a professional award ceremony.

“I really liked the whole set up,” he said. “It was at the (Mississippi) Art Museum, and that’s a good venue. It was a great time. It was a lot of good music. We got to see the productions the other schools put on, on the screen. There was some good food there. It was a really good awards program.”

Brooklyn also won an award for best actress for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West. At the event, which she described as a fun experience, the seventh grader wore a pink gown with dazzling diamond earrings. Those in attendance dressed classily and looked professional, she said.

“I feel like everybody that got an award deserved it,” she added. “Everybody there I feel like deserved to be there.”

Brooklyn Jefferson holds an award she won at the Amiable Awards, where she won for best actress for her role as Evillena in “The Wiz.” Photo courtesy Amiable Productions

JPS’ budget, however, cannot fully fund the awards ceremony, so Edwards has started a fundraiser, the Star Catcher campaign, to assist in giving students of the program this recognition of their efforts.

Although the goal is officially set for $20,000, Edwards’ real goal is to raise $100,000 in 100 days. The actress is looking for corporate sponsors to offset what JPS cannot do at this time, as she wants this program to be sustainable for the long haul, she explained.

“I want this program to go for years,” Edwards said. “I would love to see the Amiable Arts foundation be a part of the community that looks like me and identifies with me, so we can have the children do something positive, creative and learn how to turn their creativity into a career.”

In the future, she would like to acquire a JPS abandoned building, gut it and make it a “thriving place of creative culture and amiableness,” the founder added.

Janelle Jefferson said that when she first met Amia, she picked up on the actress’ energy, her drive and the reasons why she wanted to establish this program. The mother believes the acting program will have a huge impact on Jackson youths aspiring to enter the industry.

“Despite all the challenges that our city has, it really is a great place to raise my kids. We stress academics is important; however, the avenues for creativity are just as important,” Jefferson said.

“With (Edwards’) energy, her eagerness and with her being from here, she understands where they (youth) are and what they need. There’s so much untapped potential here with our young people, so I’m in full support of her.”

To learn more about the Amiable Awards Foundation, visit their Facebook page. To donate to the Star Catcher campaign, visit its GoFundMe page

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