NEARLY 400 middle and high school Thespians from Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas enjoyed an opportunity to watch a staged reading from one of Broadway’s hottest shows in a once-in-a-lifetime setting. The students were part of an invitation-only audience for a Theatre in Our Schools month performance from To Kill a Mockingbird, hosted at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium on April 2.

Playwright Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher joined To Kill a Mockingbird cast members Jeff Daniels, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Gideon Glick, Will Pullen, Gbenga Akinnagbe, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Dakin Matthews, and Neal Huff to present select scenes from the play, which is based on Harper Lee’s enduring novel of racial injustice and childhood innocence. They were introduced by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, and Educational Theatre Foundation President Julie Cohen Theobald.

“I do believe that the arts are the most unifying force in America,” Pelosi said. “It all has the power to make us laugh together, to make us cry together, to forget our differences, to bond together in the spirit of creativity.”

Newly inducted Thespian Dasia Dyson of Troupe 8836 at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C., had not previously read or seen To Kill a Mockingbird. She said the performance emphasized the power of its story and encouraged her to learn more. “A big takeaway from this experience was that you don’t need to have a big set and costumes to tell a story,” Dyson said. “The actors and actresses worked very well with the space they had and effectively told the story using just their voices, tones, and facial expressions. I just recently got involved with theatre, and I love it. To get to expand your mind and temporarily transform into someone else is very exciting.”

The Broadway production team for To Kill a Mockingbird also awarded International Thespian Society Democracyworks essay winner Brannon Evans of Thespian Troupe 5483 at Millard West High School in Omaha, Neb., a $10,000 college scholarship, made possible through a grant to the Educational Theatre Foundation. In her essay, Evans described how her school’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird gave her a better understanding of her fellow cast members, helped her wrestle with issues of race and self-identity, and inspired her to pursue a life in theatre.

An impromptu reading of her essay at a dinner held the evening before the performance earned Evans a last-minute invitation to join the cast onstage. “Some of them had watched the video of my essay, and they congratulated me on it,” Evans said. “The actress playing Scout, Celia Keenan-Bolger, mentioned how much she really loved it, and she asked if I could read it in front of everyone. I told her, ‘Sure, but I’ll have to read from my phone.’ After reading my essay, the director came up to me and said they wanted to do a scene the next day, but one of their actresses couldn’t come, and he wanted to know if I could fill in. Obviously, I agreed, and that’s how I ended up performing with the Broadway cast of To Kill a Mockingbird!

“Honestly, the whole experience was surreal,” Evans said. “The kindness of the cast and creative team made it all so enjoyable. It also was just another sign that this is where I’m meant to be and what I’m meant to pursue.”

The To Kill a Mockingbird performance celebrated Theatre in Our Schools month, a grassroots campaign held each March to raise public awareness of the impact of theatre education and draw attention to the need for more access to quality theatre programs for all students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 28 percent of public high schools in high poverty areas offer theatre education.

“This special event, held in our nation’s repository of history, demonstrates that telling an important story through theatre can be transformative for everyone who participates, whether they are backstage, onstage, or in the audience,” Theobald said.

Event attendees included Thespians from Atholton High School (Columbia, Md.), Bullis School (Potomac, Md.), Friends Meeting School (Ijamsville, Md.), Jemicy School (Owings Mills, Md.), KIPP D.C. College Preparatory (Washington, D.C.), Linganore High School (Frederick, Md.), McKinley Technology High School (Washington, D.C.), New Kent High School (New Kent, Va.), Rock Ridge High School (Ashburn, Va.), Thomas S. Wootton High School (Rockville, Md.), and Turner Ashby High School (Bridgewater, Va.).

Learn more about Theatre in Our Schools month online. Check out additional photos from the event on our Facebook page.

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