By J, Vera
Black Masks , Vol. 13, No. 3
The Child in Me: Kelsey E. Collie
With the nation's attention on educating our youth, we, in the arts, look to innovators who have long been on that journey. Such a man is Kelsey E. Collie. "I found that children in D.C. neighborhoods had a real hunger to express themselves culturally, and to use their creative energies through theatre, dance and music," he says. "They wanted to see themselves on stage and their parents enthusiastically assisted them towards that goal by working backstage and in the community. It was felt that this experience coupled with the culminating performance provided their children with strong role models, morals, values and manners. Our interaction became so involved that we often wound up offering some unofficial counseling and coping with family difficulties."
While working on his Master's thesis in children's theatre at George Washington University (the only African American in the program), Collie created a questionnaire to get feedback on the children's wants and discovered that "they were fascinated by the villain. This character provided them with vicarious thrills by breaking boundaries -- doing what they weren't allowed to do themselves. Through his dramatic action, [the villain] could change! Such versatility attested to youth's desire to wear many faces and stimulated me to write Fiesta. It prompted me to again note that there were no Black characters targeted for children on TV in the late '60s. That was the era of Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo. So I had to fill that gap by organizing CLASP (Creative Language Arts Project). From 1968 to 1973, we offered six weeks of neighborhood training sessions for kids," he recalls.
Fiesta (later renamed Celebration) drew upon Collie's West Indian roots. It was produced at Howard University when Kelsey joined the faculty as Children's Theatre Coordinator in 1973. The late, dynamic Professor T.G. Cooper, Chair of the Department of Drama, supported Kelsey's development of a comprehensive curriculum for youth and produced Kojo and the Leopard. Collie notes, "With his selection of me as a director, I found myself in a position to utilize what I had learned from my grass roots experience and my advanced education." This 1973 one-act show starring college students ran to a packed house of children every day for a month. Its depiction of an African naming ceremony and of a rite of passage into manhood accompanied by chanting and dancing rituals "watered the souls of the young ones and spoke to the adults too," Collie remembers with a sparkle in his eyes and verve in his voice. "This foreshadowed the need for and popularity of these participatory ceremonies which are practiced in our community today."
Since Kelsey Collie had minored in English at Hampton Institute (with a major in Theatre), he believed that material written by Blacks deserved attention. Therefore, he staged Sketches in Black (1974), a compilation of poetry by distinguished writers, followed by Mimes and Yarns, which focused on folk and tall tales. Find Yourself a Dream (1977), written by T.G. Cooper in praise of Col. Charles Young, the third African American to attend West Point, and directed by Collie, "affected so many kids that I felt compelled to write Black Images, Black Reflections. The Bicentennial Celebration in Washington was coming up and I did not want our contributions to be omitted. Teachers were eager for Black students to know their history." This highly successful 1975 play, which has been the mold for spin-offs, evolved out of improvisations, poetry, historical facts, achievements and quotes of African Americans. The college actors who performed at the university site were later replaced by younger students in the course of the show's ten-year tour.
"With the touring success of Black Images, Black Reflections," says Collie, "I felt the need to incorporate into a company. Melvin L. Andrews, my former university student, became the manager. We toured internationally, winning awards in Ireland, Canada and the Bahamas and throughout the East Coast and Mid-West -- in universities, recreational centers, and churches. …