Theatrical Oasis: African American Children's Theatre Spotlights Milwaukee Youth


Jennifer Evans

After school in Milwaukee’s central city, children and adults shuffle through the labyrinth hallways of a 55,000 square-foot building. They hustle with instruments and other necessary props in tow. Breaking free from the confining walls of the classrooms, the squeaks and squawks of instruments spill out into the hallways, colliding with the sweet harmony of a children’s choir.

Matthew Wisniewski/Curb
Imani Smith helps to lead AACT group in a song. Click on the
image to view a photo slideshow.

One group of children makes its way through the massive Milwaukee Youth Arts Center toward the Sondheim Room, the nightly gathering place of the African American Children’s Theatre. Contrasted against the sprawling backdrop of the complex, the room is considerably quiet.

Seated at a table equipped with a sign-in sheet, money box, bowl of fruit and hand sanitizer, Constance Clark, known to students as Aunt Connie, and her sister, Caroline Lenyard, anticipate the children’s arrival. Aunt Connie's smile eases the harshness of the classroom’s cold white walls and hardwood floors.

The smile is the physical manifestation of the children’s theater’s founding ideal. Just as Aunt Connie’s presence softens the chill of the room, AACT was born as an answer to the harshness of the streets. Having lost two young nephews to gun violence, Clark set out to offer children an escape from the violent streets of Milwaukee, first in her family and then in her community. AACT became the solution.

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For as long as Clark can remember, she has considered herself a performer.

“As a kid, I made everyone perform,” Clark said. “Every holiday, I’d organize all of the kids to put on a show. It was extremely important to me. When mom started getting Thanksgiving dinner ready, I started preparing our show.”

From her directing of early holiday performances for family and friends to high school choir and drama groups, Clark evolved into a skilled performer. By the mid- to late-1980s, Clark began performing professionally on a regular basis in community theater, and recording voice-overs for radio and television commercials. With future plans of acquiring additional training in singing and acting, Clark was confident her career in the arts was beginning to take off.

Reflecting back to the late-1980s, Clark said, “I always imagined I’d one day end up singing on Broadway… those were my dreams then.”

But in the Spring 1989, Clark’s dreams were suddenly interrupted while visiting her daughter at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Hundreds of miles from Milwaukee, Clark received startling news that her nephew, Brian, was dead at the age of 24, after a gun his friend was holding misfired and struck Brian in the head. Clark left Pine Bluff early the next day to be at the side of her older sister, Caroline, as they mourned the loss of Caroline’s son.

Brian was killed at a time when “he was just getting focused and just starting to know what he wanted to do with his life,” Clark explained.

“Brian was the life of our family,” Clark said. “When you lose someone like that, it’s senseless.”

Less than one year following Brian's death and long before those wounds could even begin to heal, Clark’s nephew, Jeffrey, 24, was gunned down in Milwaukee on his way home from work.

picture of dancing
Matthew Wisniewski/Curb
Linked hand-in-hand, AACT students work together to complete an acting exercise.
“At the time, 10 to 12 African Americans were being killed each week in Milwaukee, and no one seemed to be paying any attention,” Clark said. “[My family] knew that Milwaukee was very violent at that time, but we always thought ‘These things happen to others, not us.’”

As the shock and numbness over the sudden deaths of the young family members gave way to a deep and painful sense of loss, Clark’s tightly-knit family began to fray. The deaths of Brian and Jeffrey seemed too much for some family members to bear. Clark said some of the young family members “took the wrong path,” ultimately ending up in jail. Others fled from the merciless city Clark's family had called home for decades.

“We were a nice quiet family and suddenly, it was all blown up,” Clark said.

Clark’s family recognized the need to come together in order to survive the tragedy that was tearing them apart. Weekly Sunday meetings provided an opportunity for the family to find support from within. For the young people in the family, the meetings provided their first lesson on the personal impacts of violence and death.

“The Sunday meetings gave us something to look forward to,” Clark said. “We had the chance to be together and stay together.”

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