After holding Zoom classes for a full year and discussing with students the racial reckoning that gripped America in 2020, drama teacher Leslie Jones was determined to make a lasting impact through the art she knows best — theater.

What began with a play about social justice at Alexandria City High School in northern Virginia turned into a partnership with social studies teacher Ra Alim Shabazz, who heads the Black Student Union. Together, they launched a project at the intersection of art and civic engagement.

"When I first started working here at this school, we didn't really have a comprehensive Black History Month program at all. In fact, it was relegated to morning announcements and trivia." said Shabazz. "My students, they said, 'We should do more for Black History Month, don't you think?' And I said, 'yes, we should.' That is when I pledged my energy to building something that we could all be proud of."

A decade into the initiative, students performed this week in the latest edition of what's now an annual showcase honoring Black History Month through poetry, dance and theater.

"It's a comprehensive program that really puts the students at the center of the celebration of the history and culture of African-Americans," said Shabazz.

As part of the program, a "black box enlightenment lecture series" showcased presentations by guests including Olympian John Carlos and musician Gregory "Sugar Bear" Elliott.

Jones says the discussions were designed to teach students about aspects of Black history often overlooked in a traditional classroom setting.

Jones and Shabazz's efforts got a boost last school year through a partnership with a city-wide initiative, the Alexandria Community Remembrance Project, to take 32 students to Montgomery, Alabama to visit historic sites linked to America's history with racial terror.

Students also reflected on how that history relates to their own community. The visit inspired senior Yahney-Marie Sangare, 18, to write a play about two hate crimes that took place in Alexandria in the late 19th century.

"There's this Lorraine Hansberry quote 'Oh what I think I must tell this world,' as in there is so much that you wish to express," said Sangare, who's been the showcase's student playwright for the past four years. "With art, you can take it a step further without just saying it yourself, but saying it through tens of characters and an entire plot line and story."

Her latest play explores how Alexandria's community grapples with the aftermath of the lynchings of teenage boys, Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas — in 1897 and 1899, respectively. They are the only two documented lynching cases to occur in Alexandria.

"Another key feature of this project that I think has been very meaningful is showing students how art and, specifically theater, can be an outlet for some of these issues and topics." said KD Bectel, a senior who serves as the theater department's stage manager.

Bectel says the program helps them have tough conversations about racism.

"A big fear that people have for some of this stuff is just how uncomfortable it is. I've found that within this project there's been a really good community to address some of that discomfort and make it into something worthwhile and positive," Bectel added.

Fellow senior Xander Miller co-created a soundtrack for an award-winning documentary made with other students about the pilgrimage. The film won a social justice award from the Virginia Education Association.

The program "definitely did influence the way that I approach art and the way I approach music. I want my art and my studies in the future to reflect how much this changed me," he said. Miller says he now feels more aware of historical and current acts of racism.

Shabazz plans to next take his students on a "mini pilgrimage" to historical sites throughout Virginia in the coming months.

The students are engaged, and Jones has high hopes for their "bright future."

"People do not give them as much credit as they should and need to," she said. "I think our country is going to be in good hands."

The radio and digital versions of this story were edited by Olivia Hampton.

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