With their faces adorned in colorful masks they painted themselves, middle- and high-school students within the Jackson Public School District have taken turns this semester writing, narrating and silently acting out skits based on African proverbs.
These assignments teach participating students how to tell stories through both monologues and body language, key focuses in Amia Edwards’ “3.2.1. Action!” after-school program. Edwards is the CEO and founder of the Amiable Arts Foundation, a nonprofit that is helping prepare Jackson youth for vocations, college and careers in film, theater, and performing arts.
“I’m really challenging both our stage (and) film actors and directors to know how to use their bodies to portray a character and not only depend on their words,” Edwards told the Mississippi Free Press. “Even this week, we’re learning the historical significance of the (African) laugh-now, cry-later theater masks that you see.”
One of Edwards’ favorite African proverbs that she tells her students is, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito,” which suggests that anyone can leave a lasting mark on this world with enough determination.
After receiving positive feedback from students, parents and administrators during the program’s first year in 2021, Edwards announced on Oct. 10, 2022, that the program is returning to Jackson Public Schools and expanding, with Powell Middle School joining six other middle and high schools that previously collaborated with the Amiable Arts Foundation for this project.
As part of the curriculum, Edwards challenges the up-and-coming artists with daily tongue twisters so that they can better learn to enunciate their words at varying speeds.
“Amiable Productions provides theater and film, arts, and culture after-school enrichment programs and activities for middle and high-school students and the Jackson Public School District,” Jackson Public Schools Office of Innovative Strategy Executive Director Samecia Stokes told the Mississippi Free Press. “Students learn the basics and intermediate trades of the film and theater professions from noted film, theater and entertainment professionals.”
Stokes described the program as unique, necessary and vital to helping develop and hone the voices and agency of students.
“It makes me smile that kids are wanting something positive to do,” Edwards said. “Clearly, it shows that they need something creative to do because no matter what, all of us are creative. … Whether you’re an attorney or whether you’re an actress, everyone needs to have some type of creative outlet to be the best they can be.”
‘Boost in Confidence’
Samecia Stokes first met Edwards during the film festival the Amiable Arts Foundation organized and held at the Jackson Convention Center during the previous school year to showcase the video projects that her students created.
Edwards had already submitted a proposal to become a partner with JPS and further implement her after-school program. At the film festival, Stokes observed the production efforts that JPS students put into their projects.
“I was simply blown away and impressed with the level of work that our students did and just the mere fact that they produced such amazing films, if you will, under her direction,” Stokes said. “They would not have had that opportunity, I don’t believe, had they not been exposed to programming of that kind. I was blown away, speechless, and I’m seldom speechless.”
The administrator said that Edwards’ enthused demeanor and magnetic personality helps her connect with young people, letting her learn their concerns and needs and subsequently design her program with the students’ wishes in mind.
“She also recognized that many of our students are very, very vocal and that their voice needs to be heard in positive ways,” Stokes added. “So to lift up an opportunity of this kind where their voice was not only showcased, but mattered really helped to boost confidence in many of our students.”
Stokes explained that the pandemic stunted many students’ ability to hone their social skills due to learning virtually in remote classrooms. Edwards’ program, however, allowed the middle and high schoolers to gather and collaborate to express themselves, inside and out.
“What I would like to see is for Amia to continue to stretch her creative arm, follow her heart and render what it is that she has a vision to do and provide for our students,” Stokes said. “What I hope to see is her expanding this work beyond where it is now in film, theater, performing arts and raising cultural awareness about dance and the infusion of arts as part of what it means to educate the whole child.”
‘The Only Reason I Come to School’
Edwards said her middle schoolers have begged to do “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” so they will be performing and working on that production throughout the program. The businesswoman said she loves to let them take the reins creatively and that she is looking forward to the students becoming their own oompa loompas.
“What I love about what we do is … (that) the kids who don’t want to be actors, our kids who wanna do hair (and) makeup, they’re drawing what they want these things to look like,” she said of the program’s emphasis on helping students develop behind-the-scenes skills in addition to acting.
The high-school artists made horror films that they presented at the program’s film festival last year. This school year, however, they will pick a film genre out of a bag and produce a film in their randomly selected genre, the actress explained.
“I’m gonna challenge them to make a silent film. Somebody’s gonna get theater, somebody’s gonna get a rom-com, somebody’s gonna get a biopic that they’ve gotta do in less than five minutes,” Edwards said.
JPS largely funds the program, but Edwards is still looking for additional funding and donations so that she can continue to expand her program, which can get costly. Her Star Catcher campaign, which she started to raise money for the Amiable Awards she holds at the end of each year, is still open. So far, she has raised $500 of her ultimate $100,000 goal.
“I’m still determined to make it to at least that $20,000 mark. I hate to use the word begging, but I am pleading with the community to stand behind us and these babies to keep the program going,” she said.
Outside of donations, the community can also support the program by volunteering on show days and helping to contribute ideas for how to raise funds, Edwards said.
“Last year, it brought me to tears when I overheard a child say, ‘This is the only reason I come to school.’ To hear that, especially from a child that I identify with—I’m a South Jacksonian, and I already know the challenges we have on this side of town—to know this program is getting wheels turning, it’s keeping their attention in a positive way, that is what is rewarding for me,” Edwards said.
“We’re very open to that. And of course, any student who wants to be a part of the program, see if our program is at your campus and just come and be a part of it because … my biggest reward, truly, is those smiles of those babies,” she added.
To learn more about the “3.2.1. Action!” after-school arts program and the Amiable Arts Foundation, visit amiableartsfoundation.org. To learn about other after-school care programs in Jackson Public Schools, visit JPS’ webpage dedicated to those programs.