The two-person act brought to life famous Black people in history who overcame hardships and obstacles in life but never gave up on their dreams. Throughout the 45-minute performance, funded thanks to a grant from the Thornapple Area Enrichment Foundation, students were encouraged to follow their dreams, continue to love learning, and never give up.
Third-grader Kaelyn Peay said she was most inspired by Mae Jemison, the first Black astronaut. “She was the first Black person in space. She never gave up and she followed her dreams and I think that’s really good.”
It was a theme students understood and said they will remember. “I liked that they (the hall of famers) didn’t quit, they just kept pushing through and didn’t give up,” said third-grader Gehrig Skiba.
The performance was the culmination of a school-wide Hall of Fame walk with large information boards hung along the hallway and in the cafeteria. Each contained information and links to videos about famous people in history - some were famous leaders like Jemison and author Ralph Ellison. Others were local leaders like Mike Bremer who has served the Middleville community in a number of ways and most recently stepped up to be a TK bus driver when he learned the district was desperately short of drivers.
“I know him. He’s my bus driver,” one student said excitedly.
They also learned about some familiar names like Gerald Page, Minnie McFall and Rebecca Lee. Each of these educators are forever a part of Thornapple Kellogg Schools with the TK elementary schools bearing their names. National leaders like Jemison, Dorothy Vaughan, Alvin Ailey and many others were also part of their hall of fame walk and prepared students for what they would see in the theatrical performance.
Bright Star actors didn’t disappoint as they brought entertaining, educational and inspiring performances to all students at Lee. Actress Kennedy Vernengo played the role of an aspiring reporter covering the ribbon cutting of the fictional Black History Hall of Fame. Actor Marcellus Harris, quickly donning a variety of costumes and props, played the roles of several famous Black people in the fictional hall of fame.
Students learned about Alvin Ailey, a famous choreographer who opened the first integrated dance school. They learned what the words “segregated” and “integrated” meant. Through Harris, students met Ralph Ellison, author of “The Invisible Man” that talked about racism in the country; Dorothy Vaughan, the first female supervisor at NASA and one of the women known as the 'human computer,” and Mae Jemison, the first Black female astronaut.
They learned that scientist and chemist George Washington Carver invented hundreds of products from peanuts, sweet potatoes and other crops, and that Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was the first surgeon to successfully complete heart surgery.
Easily the student favorite hall of famer was Lonnie Johnson - an aerospace engineer whose “mistake” made him famous. Portraying Johnson, Harris told students of the mistake. “I was an engineer working in jet propulsion and I was working on an invention that failed. That failure became the Super Soaker water gun!” he said proudly holding the plastic prop and sending a stream of water out above his head.
“He was my favorite,” said third grader Sadie Gemoets. “He made a mistake and then made the mistake into a really good thing. So, mistakes aren’t always bad. And I like squirt guns.”
Harris also offered advice as NASA’s “human computer” Dorothy Vaughan, who overcame adversity to rise to a prominent position in space travel. “Don’t let anyone tell you your dream can't happen and don’t stop loving to learn.”
“All these people we learned about today faced difficult times and challenges, but none of them ever gave up. I think if you keep your head up, dream of a better future and never ever give up you can do anything you want to do, too,” said Vernengo in her role.
Third grader Sam McCaulley said he really enjoyed all of it. “It was a lot of fun and we got to do something different. The show - I would definitely give a 10 and think they should come back for more shows again.”
Bright Star Touring Theatre is based in North Carolina, with actors who travel the country giving shows to schools and organizations. The company started offering programs about Black history in 2005.