“Someday when we wake up, the sky may not be blue. Someday wild animals might all live in the zoo, and someday we’re going to all be grown-ups just like you, and when that day comes we want the Earth to be alive,” children between the ages of nine and 16 sang at the Baha’i Center of Nassau County on July 29 in preparation for their upcoming performances — one at the Valley Stream Community Fest at the end of September, and one of the Baha’i bicentennial at the end of October.
At these events, the Baha’i Center’s Children’s Theater Company performs songs that preach the ideals of the Baha’i faith, including racial unity, protecting the environment and being tolerant of other faiths.
“We want people to like be inspired when they see us on stage and stuff,” said Tyre Gardner, 15, of Springfield Gardens, Queens.
But the actors do not have to be Baha’i to join. In fact, 9-year-old Ari Vanunu is Jewish and goes to rehearsals after Hebrew School on Sunday mornings. “You come here, and they’re teaching the same kind of Tikkun Olam as they’re teaching in Judaism,” said Ari’s mother, Vicki, referring to the Jewish ideal of repairing the world.
According to Vicki, the children discuss these values at a character education portion of their rehearsals, where one day Executive Director Mehr Mansuri taught the children about the Holocaust. That lesson, Vicki said, made Ari cry, but her fellow actors were on hand to comfort her. “I think that if that’s how the world worked, there would be no war,” Vicki said.
Children in the program also learn morals from the original musicals that they perform, including “Yertle the Turtle,” “Providence,” “Rescue Me,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “Henry Box Brown.”
“I like to say, before there was ‘Hamilton,’ there was Children’s Theater Company,” joked Mansuri. “We just take history books and make them musicals.”
Some of the musicals, such as “Yertle the Turtle” are meant for younger audiences. Others, such as “Rescue Me,” deal with serious subjects.
“Rescue Me,” traces the history of women in America through song, and shows how women went from homemakers to members of the workforce. Sumaya Bouhbal, 13, of Lynbrook, starred in “Rescue Me” as Betty Boop, a character she says she was obsessed with as a toddler. “When I looked back at it, I was like ‘Oh my God,’ as a two-year-old I didn’t get any of these messages about — in order for a women to be noticed, she had to be super cartoony and super forward, or she had to be like the greatest homemaker ever,” Bouhbal said. “It was pretty eye opening to be Betty Boop.”
Since June, the company has been performing “Henry Box Brown,” which tells the story of a slave named Henry who shipped himself in a dry-goods crate to meet abolitionists in Philadelphia. The young actors said that the musical taught them that there were white people at the time who opposed slavery, and that it demonstrated the abilities of the human spirit.
“I’ve learned not to underestimate what a person can do if they really want it,” said 15-year-old Willow Chamblin. “He could’ve been caught at any time, but he didn’t care because he wanted to be free.”
The Children’s Theater Company costs $480 to join for four months — the amount of time it takes to put on a single show — and offers children the opportunity to work with professional actors in Manhattan. Partial or full scholarships are available for parents who would like to assist with productions. For more information, visit childrenstheatercompany.org.