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BCA brings children's book celebrating differences to the screen

Published on Monday, May 3, 2021

screen shot of sahmaya busby and aniyah gordon, in characters

Photos provided by BCA: Senior Sahmaya Busby, as "Mrs. Sharonda", speaks to "Obinna", played by freshman Aniyah Gordon, in a scene from the BCA's upcoming on-demand video production of "Different", a children's book written by Chris Singleton.


After his mother was killed at his church in June 2015, Chris Singleton has made it his personal mission to reach children, and teach them to embrace and celebrate each other’s differences.

Singleton is a former minor league baseball player drafted by the Chicago Cubs. He became a nationally-renowned speaker with a message of resilience, forgiveness and unity after his mother, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was one of nine people killed in the Emanuel AME Church tragedy in downtown Charleston. All victims were African-American members of the church, who were shot by a white supremacist who opened fire while parishioners prayed.

Last year he released a children’s book, “Different: A Story About Loving Your Neighbor,” which follows Obinna, a boy who can tell he is different from the other children when he starts his first day at a new school in a new country.

Now Singleton’s book is being brought to the stage, thanks to senior theater students from Berkeley Center for the Arts (BCA) who have collaborated with Singleton this past year to create a video recording of the play.

 

Chris Singleton’s work

Chris Singleton graduated from Goose Creek High in 2014. He has a brother at the school who is graduating senior.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton began her professional career as a speech and language pathologist in Georgia before moving to Goose Creek High in 2008. In addition to working as a speech therapist and track coach at the high school, she was a pastor.

Singleton had the opportunity to be a student at the school while his mom still worked there, and she was very involved in her own children’s education.

“She didn’t allow us to slack off either – she would stay on us,” he said.

Singleton resides in Hanahan with his wife and son, plus another son on the way. He now travels the country as a public speaker, touching on unity and race reconciliation, faith and forgiveness, diversity and inclusion, overcoming adversity, and the power of teammates. His mission is to unite people with his belief that “love is stronger than hate.”

This past year, with the pandemic, Singleton was still able to reach audiences virtually, and he is starting to get back into visiting different cities throughout the country – his biggest audience is students and teachers.

Singleton self-published "Different," which was released June 17, 2020 – the fifth anniversary of the Emanuel AME tragedy. The book is a tribute to Singleton’s mom, and tells a story that encourages others how to live in unity and harmony.

In the book, Obinna moves from Nigeria to Charleston, and his new classmates make a point to let him know that he is “different.” Obinna receives help from his teacher, Mrs. Sharonda, who tells him: “Never be ashamed of who you are… You are beautifully and wonderfully made.”

The book has sold about 18,000 copies worldwide.

“I just wanted to sell 1,000 at first and we’re at 18,000, so it’s done really well,” Singleton said.

Singleton has since written another children’s book called “Your Life Matters," which came out in March, and focuses on reassuring black children that their lives and voices matter.

Singleton is hopeful to keep releasing children’s books and continue reaching other people throughout the world every year.

Following the church shooting, members of the victims’ families actually came forward and voiced their forgiveness to the shooter – and forgiveness is something Singleton also hopes to write about, saying it helped him as he grieved his mother.

“I do believe it’s super powerful,” Singleton said, adding, “I just want to go into depth about the tool and how it’s helped me and my family.”

 

Working with BCA

BCA is Berkeley County School District’s first arts magnet program established on the secondary level. It is housed at Goose Creek High.

Ashley Baker, assistant BCA theater director, said producing "Different" was a big collaboration among the BCA students.

“We knew we wanted a children’s theater piece and we knew we wanted something that spoke to diversity and inclusion,” Baker said. “We wanted to make sure that we chose the right book for that project.”

Baker worked with BCA theater director Lauren Canfield to select the perfect book, and make sure the author was somebody they wanted to promote.

“The stars kind of aligned when we found Chris’s book, of course, with his history here, not only in Charleston, but Goose Creek High School,” Baker said.

Not only did Singleton attend Goose Creek High, he also spoke at the school’s graduation a couple of years ago. Canfield started e-mailing Singleton directly, explaining to him that the theater department wanted to take on this project, and that it would be special to the theater department given his family’s connections with the school.

BCA was not the only theater company to approach him about adapting the book – “but we’re the one he chose, so we feel really honored and lucky to have the opportunity,” Canfield said.

Singleton said one of the main reasons he was skeptical about letting a theater production take his story on was he was not sure how much say he would get in changing any elements of the book. However, BCA allowed him to be a part of the process.

“Before it went to production I had to give the okay – and I definitely did, they did a phenomenal job,” he said.

Baker said the production felt very powerful, and when the theater department reached out to Singleton, he was very happy to grant access to the project.

“He was very helpful in a lot of ways,” Baker said. “He also gave us a lot of freedom, which was nice because it can be tricky when it comes to such creative work; he was unfamiliar with the process of theater, and we are unfamiliar with the process of writing a children’s book, so it took a lot of back and forth on that.”

The senior theater students started working adaptations of the book last year; Baker said the students learned about what it means to adapt a published work before it hits the stage, and then the students either individually or in groups worked on their own adaptations of “Different.”

Baker read over the drafts and selected senior Jasmine Diaz’s adaptation, saying it captured the best version of the book and what was most conducive to what the students could do on stage. In talks and in collaborations with the BCA senior class, the students worked together to make Diaz’s adaptation a reality.

Baker said the hardest part about making an adaptation is taking a children’s book, which is often very short (“Different” can be read aloud in a matter of minutes), and expanding the story without taking it down a path not true to Singleton.

What stood out about Diaz’s version was her ability to expand scenes, and how she fleshed out the characters.

“I think that you get to know these characters in a great way, and Chris being happy with it makes me know that Jasmine really stuck true to his vision for these characters and for this story,” Baker said.

Diaz served as the assistant director of the production. Diaz had a personal connection with the book as she is a child of an immigrant.

Diaz said theater always creates something that speaks to people and always leaves them learning something; she said she was glad to be a part of a story that speaks to diversity because of her own experience.

In addition to understanding the importance of embracing each other’s differences, Diaz said she wants viewers to walk away knowing it is never too early to start talking to children about accepting differences.

“Children of color definitely immediately know…all of these experiences and go through them and acknowledge right after that, they’re different,” she said. “I think a lot of parents need to know that you don’t need to shield your child from knowing these things happen…They can be there for people, and not treat people like how the children treat Obinna in this (story).”

 cast of "different" during production

Production

There is a cast of 11 students, plus four on the creative team and a student crew. Auditions were open to all students.

Freshman Aniyah Gordon plays the lead character, Obinna. Gordon said she wanted to be a part of the production because she was able to relate with her character in certain ways.

“I wanted to be a part of ‘Different’ because I saw it as a way kind of to bring myself into a story,” she said. “I’m a black woman in America so, in a way I can relate to Obinna – obviously it’s not the same because I was born and raised here.

“There are things in there (the story) that I could relate to, like how I call my grandparents different things or how people would make fun my hair,” Gordon said, adding, “I wouldn’t say I’m him (Obinna) now – I think I’ve progressed and I’ve become more comfortable with myself, and you can see Obinna become comfortable with himself in the show, and I think it’s just great that we got to bring ourselves, in a way, to the show.”

Senior Sahmaya Busby portrays Obinna’s teacher, Mrs. Sharonda.

Busby said when they were first given the assignment to adapt the children’s book into a play, she felt the message behind the book is especially important to younger children as it teaches a lesson about diversity and acceptance.

“I think that it’s just an important story that needs to be told and…I think that the fact that it has roots connected to where we live right now was also something that would make it even better for kids to hear who live here, and make it more relatable,” Busby said.

Busby also said she thinks this production was a great way to end her high school theatrical career.

“I feel like Mrs. Sharonda was a really important role because this is the first role I’ve played where it was based on someone real, and I…tried to bring a great deal of care to that, so I feel like it was my final act of maturity playing this role, and so I guess ending with it feels good,” she said. “I feel very satisfied and content in the work I did on this show.”

Gordan said she hopes the production speaks to minority children as well, and encourages them to just be themselves.

“I want little kids who look like me, or look like Jasmine, look like Sahmaya, or just anyone who’s a minority and has to go through that realization as…a child that you’re different, I just want them to know: it’s okay,” Gordan said. “There’s no reason to change yourself, there’s no reason to try to hide who you are, there’s no reason to change how you speak around people.

“At the end of the day, you’re you, you’re always going to be you, and changing yourself is never going to let people know the real you,” Gordan said. “So just always be yourself and be okay with that.”

 cast members "running" (in character) during production

Making a video

With the ongoing pandemic, BCA’s theater department decided to make this production a video instead of performing in front of a live audience (view the trailer).

Filming has already wrapped up. Baker said they built something like a sound stage with three different playing areas on the stage, and the camera shot from the middle. Rather than messing with editing, they opted to do it all in one shot.

“We tried to bridge the gap between what we know we could do best and what we had the capability to do – because we are theater people, not film people,” Baker said.

The show will air May 7-9 to ticketholders. The video is 20 minutes long, but it concludes with a 10-minute speech from Singleton.

“I just tell people...this is a mission to bring people together, regardless of where they’re from or what they look like, and that I’d love them to help me out in that mission,” Singleton said.

Singleton said something he says in his talks is that “nobody chooses their skin color, so I wouldn’t judge them for theirs and they shouldn’t judge me for mine.”

Singleton saw a dress rehearsal of the production. Baker said the cast felt vulnerable with him watching, as they were wary of honoring his story in the best way.

But he loved it.

“It was definitely something I didn’t take for granted – I loved it,” he said.

Baker said Singleton offered to bring in more professional filming options, and that she thinks he was overall happy with what he got to see.

“I think it was special to him to see it really come to life,” she said.

The theater department worked with dance teacher Tameika Ramseur to pull off a dream sequence at the start of the show; a student choreographer put together some traditional West African dances that are featured for about a minute at the beginning of the play.

“That’s always a nice element of BCA, trying to involve other disciplines, so rather than just keeping it in theater, we were will able to have Ms. Ramseur’s expertise in helping us out with dancers who are featured as well,” she said.

Singleton said the dream sequence was probably one of his favorite parts.

“I didn’t have that part in the book, and they implemented it really well,” he said.

Diaz said the hardest part was figuring out how to put the project together as a video, and learning the logistics of working with a camera. She also said the tech crew had to come up with original stage directions.

“I give them props for having to…build some of the hardest parts of making a performance from scratch,” she said.

Busby said playing a character who is so important to the author in a respectful manner, and making sure she played it well, was the biggest challenge for her.

“I’m not scared about seeing my performance, I’m just more excited to see it pushed out there, and (to) originate a role…because I am the first person to play this role (Mrs. Sharonda), so I feel like that’s exciting,” Busby said.

Baker and Canfield said they are very proud of their students.

“I’m honored to have been a part of this experience, and I think it’s going to be really special – it already has been very special,” Baker said.

Canfield said she thinks the project is a very fitting project for the students.

“I think they’ve done an excellent job of stepping up and being the leaders of the theater program this year, despite all of the challenges,” she said.

cast on sound stage during performance

View ticket information

View the trailer

View Chris Singleton's website

 

Monica Kreber
kreberm@bcsdschools.net