Awele (ah WAY lay) Makeba is preparing for the 2017 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratorical Festival and everything is starting to happen at once. It’s the second day back from holiday break and Ms. Awele’s phone is ringing while she answers a knock on the door of her drama classroom at Skyline High School. It's a student and her friend.
The student says she is interested in performing a poem she wrote for the festival, and after accepting Ms. Awele’s offer to coach her, the student explains that she is a freshman, participating for the first time.
“Oh I love it!” Ms. Awele exclaims, excited. “We have a legacy here, you are joining it!”
Ms. Awele has been the director of the MLK Oratorical Festival, now in its 38th year, for the past three years. During this time, she also became the Drama Director at Skyline. The celebration, which she says “the community really comes out for,” features the performance of over 1,500 Pre-K through 12th grade students in the categories of original and published poetry, speech and chorals/scenes. Under this year’s theme, “A Call To Action,” both the district-wide competition and finals competition will be held at the Phillip Reeder Performing Arts Center @ Castlemont High School in late January and February.
“I was so happy when I got the call to find out if I was interested in producing the Oratorical,” she says. “I always jump at the chance to lift up our students, for their light to shine in performance by youth for youth."
Drama techniques ground Ms. Awele’s teaching and coaching. “At the most fundamental level of how drama education benefits students, I always start by sharing that it helps to build self-confidence, creative expression and being able to get up in front of a group to speak publicly, which research tells us is the number one thing people dislike doing.”
Donald Oliver, the festival’s founder 38 years ago, envisioned it in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s honor as a showcase for students’ oratorical skills. He felt that the testing and reading score data did not lift up students’ comprehension or their fluency skills and abilities. Oliver knew that by displaying students’ public speaking skills they could demonstrate the ability not just to read, write and comprehend complex texts but also to analyze, synthesize and perform it in a way that celebrates their own interpretation.
“From page to stage is where my work comes in,” says Awele. “First you have to do all the work that a drama student would do in analyzing the text and finding the core essence, the subtext, the message that we’re trying to convey. How do we want to touch people? Based on that, let’s think about how public speaking can move the audience. What are the tools we have to make it sink into someone’s gut and their heart so it’s not an intellectual piece? The audience is there for an experience, otherwise they can go to the library or online and read the poem or speech...”
With a background as a literacy specialist, Ms. Awele previously worked with Teaching and Learning at OUSD’s central office as a literacy coach and she produced a speaker series called "Race Matters," which reached over 1,000 teachers, specialists, principals and students. Her work as a professional storyteller and artist for social change on an international level provides her with a broad appreciation for drama as an educational and change-enabling practice.
“My students work within their creative imagination. Think about Einstein and his beliefs that imagination was more important than knowledge. He believed the supreme role of the teacher was to awaken creative expression. Creativity is important for innovative problem-solving, designers need to think out of the box and it guides the role of artists in dark and difficult times to be the visionaries. So, how do we access our imagination? How do we play? How do we come back to the core of being honest and in-the-moment? How do we stand in front of someone and present another person’s life? How do we tell our own story? Drama is like a gym for practicing empathy, collaboration, trust and discipline.”
Discipline means much more than memorizing lines—a strength Awele admits is necessary, but should not be mistaken for more than a technical skill. “It’s the improvisation that happens on the stage and in-between lines when bringing text to life, painting pictures with words that’s the real hard work and then the discovery of being fearless, in the moment with your audience. That comes from spontaneity, being vulnerable, and living truthfully to bring edginess and power to public speaking so the audience can see just how important the topic is to you.”
Her students know that their level of preparation will be revealed in the performance. “So if you don’t show up for rehearsal, you will not have a performance.” Ms. Awele does not put mediocrity on stage. They must work with a coach, a critical friend to prepare and get feedback, adjust and take the work to the next level. “If you build confidence and relationships based on trust, students will take risks and be willing to fail knowing that even if they mess up, it’s going to be great because they’ll discover something new.”
In the last two years, directing the Oratorical Festival, Ms. Awele has maintained the thematic thread of Dr. King’s legacy but aims to lift up ordinary people who are an important part of freedom and liberation movements. Ms. Awele encourages her drama students to focus on the social justice issues they care deeply about and find ways to honor those through the pieces they write.
“Our students, more than ever, will be called to take a stand and take action. There are so many things that happen in schools, our communities, and at a policy level that really impact their lives. I’m hoping teachers challenge students to think critically about Dr. King's philosophy and how it can inspire us to transform our lives, our communities and society.”
"King couldn’t have done it without those foot soldiers out there doing the work, daily putting their bodies on the line, using their voice to persuade, and motivate, sometimes breaking rules in hopes of fair and just policies—it was a symbiotic relationship," Ms. Awele says.
"Dr. King inspired with his philosophical framework and powerful speeches and they lifted him up, practiced non-violence, their right to assemble and protest so that their humanity could be recognized, thus inspiring Dr. King and advancing democracy in our nation. They had a love for liberty and justice just as strong as the founding fathers did and this was demonstrated by their call to action.”
Awele Makeba teaches in Oakland.