New London talent show highlights youth achievements

Editor's note: The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Aaliyah Staten's name. It was previously listed as Aaliyah Stater.

New London - Five years after its inception, the New London Youth Talent Show is succeeding at what it set out to do: shine a spotlight on the positive accomplishments of young people and build connections with surrounding communities.

"I knew we had made it when we got a country western singer from Montville and he was getting stage tips from a rapper in New London," said Susan Asselin-Connolly, an attorney, former city school board member and five-year volunteer at the talent show.

The idea came from then 20-year-old Frank Colmenares back in December 2010, just weeks after the stabbing death of 25-year-old Matthew Chew at the hands of six "bored" city teenagers. Colmenares, who faced his own challenges as a teenager, argued a talent show would be a positive outlet for city youth.

"The kids need to focus on their strengths," Colmenares said at the time, at a meeting organized to address how the city should respond to violence among young people on its streets.

Three months later, some of those in an overflow crowd had to be turned away from the first talent show, directed by Colmenares and others, because the almost 1,500-seat Garde Arts Center sold out.

That's the goal again this year, to fill the theater on March 14, when 60 young people aged 10 to 25 from across the region perform at the annual show. The second year, in 2012, the show was opened to young people who live outside New London. City and suburban kids have been participating ever since.

The performers include young people like 17-year-old Danny Ward of Jewett City, a junior at Griswold High School, who will dance hip-hop with Michael Okoasia, 21, of New London.

"The two of them might as well have been from different planets," said Asselin-Connolly. "They would never have interacted. The arts was the bridge. They are now good friends."

Ward agrees.

"There are people who I would have never met if I didn't come here," he said. His mother saw a post about the show on social media and suggested he try out for it.

Sometimes, when he can't find a ride to or from practice, one of the organizers from New London will pick him up or take him home afterwards.

"I can't wait to perform. This will be the biggest crowd ever," said Ward, who taught himself to dance and sometimes performs at school pep rallies.

"It's gonna be great," said Okoasia, who was born in Hartford, raised in Nigeria, and now has a job and home in New London.

For two months, the performers have traveled from across New London and towns like Preston, Groton, Waterford, Norwich, Mystic, Westerly and Stonington, first for auditions and now for twice- and three-times-weekly practices.

Working with volunteer voice and dance coaches and directors Colmenares and Curtis Goodwin, as well as other supporters, the young people break up into groups at the practice space at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School. Dancers are usually on the stage in the gym, break-dancing and hip-hop dancers in the cafeteria, spoken word poets wherever they can find a quiet space, rappers in another corner, and the singers, typically split into two groups, out in the hallway or around a corner.

At a recent practice, Goodwin said young people from 10 towns are performing in this year's show and pointed to the stage where coach LaaLaa Jones was working with a group of dancers in which every participating town is represented. A native of Richmond, Va., dance coach Jones came to New London four years ago for a job at Electric Boat as a mechanical engineer and quickly got involved in the talent show.

"What I say to them is, 'Dance is the only thing that matters in this space,'" said Jones, when asked about working with such a varied group. "And I tell them I can make anyone a dancer."

Mykela Parker, 13, a student at Mystic's Cutler Middle School, will be singing in her third New London show this year.

"I just love it," said her mother, Cassandra Parker. "Every year it just gets better and better."

Through participation in the talent show, Cassandra Parker said, Mykela has connected with other young people who are interested in the performing arts, too.

"They're all just wonderful kids," she said. "You watch them from the first night they come into practice to the night of the performance, and you see how much they've grown."

This year her niece, Aaliyah Staten, also 13, is participating for the first time.

"It's just so much fun for them," said Aaliyah's mother, Juliette Parker, of Groton. "They all like the interaction, and they're learning new things. They're getting a new perspective."

Casey Flax, 14, a singer and piano player who is also a Cutler Middle School student, is another first-time participant.

Her father, Bruce Flax, a member of the Groton Town Council, said family will come from as far away as North Carolina to see Casey perform in the show.

"It's great, just great," said Bruce Flax, "And it was great that (Casey) got out of her comfort zone of Groton and went over the bridge to New London. It's opened up a whole new world."

Co-producer Goodwin said the show's hashtag on social media - #ItTakesAVillage - says it all.

"You can't do it alone. It takes a team, a dream team, to break down those barriers that divide us," he said.

A recent post on the New London Youth Talent Show Facebook page included a selfie photograph of participants.

"There is nothing like a village filled with talented diverse people," read the post. "A month or 2 ago they had no idea of the person to the right and for some, to the left as well. Now we represent a Village. Join us March 14th, 2015."

"We are a melting pot," said 15-year-old Naomi Jones of Waterford, a spoken word performer. "We're like a huge family getting together and shining our talents to share a message and make a change."

Jones is paired with CJ Thibeau, 20, also from Waterford, for a poetry reading, and although the two have a mutual friend, they met only through the talent show.

Their act was to include a third participant, Rebecca Reyes, 23, of New London, but Reyes was recently arrested after her 4-year-old daughter was found outdoors in the brutal cold in the very early-morning hours.

"The day she did that, she could have been here at practice," Goodwin said.

Another organizer said there are typical kids participating and those with issues, including special needs, homelessness and serious illnesses.

"This show, and what we're doing, we're just trying to bring a community together, to better our community," said Colmenares. "We can't change the past, but we can affect the future."

Colmenares, who will turn 25 just days before the show, works as a paraprofessional at the city's public charter school ISAAC (Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication), where he was once a student. He reminisced about how it all started.

"That first year, after the (Matthew) Chew murder, there were all these meetings and complaining and pointing the finger," he said. "And I remember thinking, 'Let's stop talking. Let's take action. Let's do something.' I wanted to show that it doesn't take a large corporation to effect change.

"Let's put the kids on stage and applaud them for the great things they are doing. Let's applaud the good and highlight the positive."

Colmenares sees the arts as a venue to engage, encourage and positively embolden young people.

"Whether it is education, churches, the arts - we have to use these different platforms to reach out to the kids," he said.

So coaches and supporters provide transportation, water bottles, pizza, but also encouragement and advice. They are positive role models.

Rapper and songwriter Maurice "Moe" Steele, 22, of New London, is performing in his third show.

"It's mind-blowing how they put this all together," he said. "And I think it gives young artists an outlet so they can come out and shine.

"But the coaches, they just chose the right coaches for this. They're the best."

a.baldelli@theday.com

Twitter: @annbaldelli

IF YOU GO

What: Fifth annual New London Youth Talent Show
When: 6 p.m., March 14
Where: Garde Arts Center
Who: More than 60 young people aged 10 to 25 from 10 towns around the region
Tickets: $10 each for all ages, visit www.gardearts.org

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