SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood community had good times Saturday, Oct. 7, when acclaimed actor John Amos performed his one-man show, “Halley’s Comet,” at South Orange Middle School to raise money and support for the SOMA Black Parents Workshop and the MapSO Freedom School.
The two partner organizations advocate for the academic success of black students in South Orange and Maplewood and work to overcome obstacles that might block them. As such, leaders from the two groups were overjoyed when Amos reached out to them, saying he had heard about the work they were doing and wanted to help.
“He is a phenomenal actor but he is even more so a phenomenal man,” Black Parents Workshop founder Walter Fields said at the event. “Our mission is to represent interests of African American students to make sure they receive the education they deserve. We deserve better — our children deserve better — than what we are currently receiving.”
According to Columbia High School teacher TJ Whitaker, a leader of the MapSO Freedom School, the event sort of fell into place. Amos, who hails from Newark and grew up in East Orange, became friends with Lonnie Wright in college — the same Lonnie Wright who was husband to longtime SOMA educator and current Board of Education member Johanna Wright and father to current SOMA educator Jasmine Wright. The relationship between the Wright and Amos families stayed strong, even after Lonnie Wright died. When John Amos learned about the two organizations, he reached out to Johanna and Jasmine Wright to find a way to give back.
“He wanted to do this as a way to support us and give us his blessing,” Whitaker told the News-Record at the event. “We want people to walk away with feeling that these two organizations are two organizations that are worthy of their support.”
Amos is best known for his landmark roles on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Good Times,” as well as his leading role as an adult Kunta Kinte in the historic miniseries “Roots.” He also wrote “A World Without Color,” a children’s book, which was available for purchase at the show, that seeks to entertain while teaching the value of kindness.
For Amos, getting involved was a no-brainer.
“I support (these organizations) because they are responsible for saving the next generation of children,” Amos told the News-Record after the show. “Anything we can do to save those kids and provide them with more positive opportunities and entertainment and options — we need to do that.”
“Halley’s Comet,” which Amos wrote and has performed for more than two decades, tells the story of a black man’s relationship with the famed comet. In the show, Amos’ character seeks to catch Halley’s comet up on all it has missed — two world wars, civil rights struggles, and the man’s own personal achievements and losses — since it had last passed by the Earth 76 years earlier.
“This was an incredible collaboration that was so needed for our communities. I feel so fortunate it happened here,” SOMS Principal Lynn Irby told the News-Record at the event. “Just to see history come alive in a theatrical way is so important and we learn so much more that way. It is an incredible experience. It is so fortunate some of my sixth-grade students were here tonight.”
Amos was not the only performer of the night. CHS graduates Shelly Strothers and Felisha George, both members of the Class of 2012, performed spoken word pieces that addressed how it feels to be black in America. Strothers and George, who is running for a seat on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, both brought an interactive element to their performances, engaging the crowd and eliciting strong cheers.
Whitaker thanked them, as well as the many volunteers who helped to organize and set up for the event. He especially thanked the Wrights, Tracey Woods and the other women in the community, without whom the event would not have happened. He also acknowledged that, while women do so much for others, they are not always considered as equals.
“The most oppressed people in this country, on the face of this earth, are black women,” Whitaker said. “When we free black women, we free ourselves.”
Emcee Tracey Woods, who has a sixth-grader in the school district, said she had moved to the community 11 years ago after seeing all it offered, but that she has since been able to see the many flaws here as well.
“I noticed (the towns) were really diverse and I was appreciative of that fact, but then I started to hear things,” Woods said at the event, adding that the two hosting organizations are working to address some of the racial issues in the two towns.
“I hope people realize that there is a problem and that we can come together to cohesively solve it,” Woods, a member of the Black Parents Workshop board, told the News-Record. “We are diverse, but not inclusive and it reflects in our education.”
The Black Parents Workshop and the MapSO Freedom School have been working to increase access and equity within the schools and to make school disciplinary procedures fairer. The two groups have been particularly active since Maplewood Township released records showing Maplewood police using excessive force on black teenagers on July 5, 2016.
For these reasons, Columbia High School students volunteering at the event were not only excited to see Amos’ show, but to help further the missions of the Black Parents Workshop and Freedom School.
“Events like this are good because they bring everyone together for a good cause,” CHS student Valerie Trewick told the News-Record before the show. “It brings together everyone in the community — students and older mentors. That’s not always happening.”
Trewick’s friend and fellow volunteer agreed, saying that these events are especially important in today’s social and political climate.
“With what’s going on in the world, this is an outlet in which we can express our need for change. We can’t just sit back and take it,” CHS student Hadriana Lowenkron told the News-Record before the show. “Events like this teach that we still are able to advocate for ourselves.”
Photos Courtesy of Johanna Wright, MapSO Freedom School and Yael Katzwer