Eric's Heroes: Blood, sweat, success -- these kids put on a show
SEATTLE -- In a small room with yellow walls and great acoustics, a man sits on a piano stool and addresses 11 kids who are standing around him in a semi-circle. They are attacking the arduous and intricate task of creating perfect vocal harmony.
The man is Cedric Thomas. He says, "Try again. Zoom Zadda." And then he turns to the piano and hits a chord.
The collective voices young people in the room explode as one.
"Zoom dadda... zoom dadda... diyiyiyada... diyadda... whoaoaoaoa..." Up and down the voices go on a vocal rollercoaster of sorts, and when they stop, Cedric nods his head and closes his eyes and says, "Yeah... there you go."
You can't fake it, or wish it to be so.
You work at harmony.
You EARN harmony.
They sing it again, and at the end of the long "whoaoaoao..." a handsome young man with a short mustache and goatee named Jayden Beleford kicks in with a beautiful, growly version of James Brown's "I Feel Good."
The other kids start clapping, and the pace quickens, and suddenly the room is alive with happy, staccato rhythm and blues.
When they're done, they pause and start again, for probably the umpteen-hundredth time.
At one point they break down in mid-song with fits of laughter and giggling, and they're doubled over cracking up.
When sweat and commitment carve the path for harmony, joy always seems to follow.
There are 106 of them, ages 8 to 18.
They come here to learn and to express themselves.
They show up at 9 in the morning, and they go home at 5 in the afternoon, Monday through Friday, all summer long.
In a much bigger, brightly lit room in the same building, 40 or so dancers are working hard. drops of sweat land on the polished hardwood floor, and the air is filled with the squeaks of sneakers and some music playing in the background and a teacher calling out, "1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8!"
The instructor's name is Tyrone Crosby. "Here we go!" he yells.
And then when the song finally ends and the dancers are all catching their breath, he says, "That's how you work! That's how you sweat!"
A few moments later he tells them something about expectations. "Just because you are young, does not mean you can't be professional. Are you all professionals?"
The kids all yell, "yeah!"
"Alright.," he says, "let me see professionals then."
It is a program put on by Seattle Parks and Recreation. It's been happening for 20 years now.
And the man behind the curtains calling all the shots is Isaiah Anderson.
"Our base," he says, "is really we want them to walk away with a higher level of self-discipline, self-confidence and self-motivation."
He's sitting in the back row of an empty theater, calling out direction in a blue shirt with a couple gold chains hanging down. Somebody started moving late on a group dance number. "You can't miss the first one, you guys. Not the first one..." He isn't angry. He isn't shrill. But something about his voice gives off the unmistakable impression that he doesn't like his time to be wasted.
"It's about the collective," he tells us later. "So, one person can do something good, a few people can do something great, but it takes ALL of us to be brilliant."
His use of the word "brilliant" is no accident. This year they are working on a production called, "The Wiz! A Search for Brilliance".
Gianni Johnson is playing the role of a teacher in musical. He is 15 years old.
"I believe the first step to finding brilliance," he says, "is looking within yourself rather than finding inspiration from others because you have to be able to push yourself out there and recognize your own areas of growth and be the best person that you can be."
All of these kids will tell you a story about their own personal paths towards understanding what this program is really all about.
Jayden, who is dead set on performing on Broadway one day, says, "When I came here four years ago, I thought, 'I'm already a good singer so I don't need to do much.' But then when I came here it was, 'They don't care about your talent, they care about your work ethic...'"
The younger kids, some of them first-timers, are playing Munchkins. Joseph is 10 years old.
He remembers a turning point. "Like, one time we were dancing and I kept saying I couldn't do it . And Coach T. told me to say, 'I can do it' and then he said, 'Your brain believes what your mouth says,' and then I said I could do it, and... I could do it!"
Teaching children to believe in themselves is a profound thing.
This program does profound things.
Nine-year old Jamaar also plays a Munchkin. He says he's glad he gave up his summer, because he discovered the key to something.
"It's worth it," he says, "because you put your heart into it, and if you put your heart into it, you can do anything."
And so, after three months of getting out of bed and going to eight hours of rehearsals, and then taking it all home and practicing their singing or dance numbers in the bedrooms, the day has finally come.
The marquee of the Moore Theater in downtown Seattle says, "STG Presents Teen Summer Musical: The Wiz."
People start streaming in. Parents, grandparents, fans.
Behind the scenes, in a maze of dark hallways and old dressing rooms, 106 seekers of brilliance got all dressed up.
There was bold eye makeup and colorful scarves. There were wigs and whiskers Munchkin get ups.
Kids were giggling and chatting easily.
Nerves aren't so bad when you know you're ready.
Isaiah Anderson is in the lobby, relaxed. And he seems more interested in what his performers will take away from his program than what they will offer tonight. "We are sending them off with the brilliance that there is nothing they can't do. They are going to take everything they have obtained and apply it to life."
The house is full. And the curtain opens to reveal a bunch of students sitting around on the last day of school. "What you gonna do when the school bell rings?" asks the chorus.
Within moments, the stage came to life with a dance number, and they were off and running.
All of them jumped up in perfect unison, spun around, swung their arms, and then fell back down again. And right at that moment, every single person in the audience thought the same thing: "Whoa, these kids are good!"
And they WERE good.
Check that. They were GREAT.
The dancing was perfect. The singing was spectacular. The acting was amazing. And the whole thing practically bubbled over with unbridled, unhinged, boundless, endless happiness.
"Get on down... get on down... get on down the road..." they sang, and Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion busted a move, which then turned into Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Something"...
Later on the Zoom Dadda part came up, and the harmonies were thick and perfect, and Jayden Beleford, who played the gatekeeper of Oz, killed it with his "I Feel Good" and finished it off by dropping into the splits.
Angelica Hines, who played Dorothy, had a beautiful solo to close out the show, and the spotlight narrowed to show her clicking her heels, and the curtain closed.
But not for long. It opened up again, and all the kids were taking their bows with the crowd standing on their feet and everybody singing and clapping. The kids kept singing and dancing for the longest time, and there were cellphones held up taking pictures, trying to capture what was happening forever.
It was like the 106 young singers and dancers and actors didn't want the show to end. Or their summer, for that matter.
For one long, hot summer they worked and sacrificed so they could reach out and grab ahold of something to carry with them forever.
They stood on a stage in front of everybody and they poured their guts into a thing they cared very much about.
And they grabbed hold of sheer brilliance.
Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.