The story of Jasmine Blanks Jones and B4 Youth Theatre
For African-American artist Jasmine L. Blanks Jones, her dedication to training Liberian youth in the performing arts comes naturally.
Jones, who doesn’t really have any personal connection to the country except for being a Black woman from the United States, was inspired during her visit to the country in 2010 on an invitation from Rosana Schaack to setup a performing arts school after noticing that the lack of such a school is hampering the growth of talented Liberian youth who want to become actors and actresses.
A few days after arriving in the country, Jones opened Liberia’s first postwar performing arts school, B4 Youth Theater, starting with a student count of less than 20.
With a school slogan of ‘Burning Barriers, Building Bridges’ the students are taught to embrace the arts as a tool for community empowerment, peace-building and problem solving that gives a voice to the marginalized and promotes positive change.
Three years later in 2015, the school began its first public performances, starting with the Ebola crisis and its impact. A year later, the school organized the play ‘Hamlet,’ in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe Theater of London, with whom they shared the stage — a privileged few minutes for these talent youth on a global platform.
“I and my team established this art school to empower young people to become educated citizens through the arts,” Jones told LIB Life in an interview. “As well as helping children develop a vision for a better world and attain the education to realize their vision.
“Performing on stage gives children a way to voice their concerns to community stakeholders to build awareness of and provide possible solution to societal ills identified by the children using our unique community organizing arts model.
“I believe that development starts with people and was glad to begin the program with such a vibrant group of children and youth, who would not have been able to pay to take classes in music, dance and drama, some of which we have started introducing now,” Jones said, narrating her inspiration for the arts school.
Now in it 8th year, B4 Youth Theater has trained more than 300 children between the ages of 10 and 18 across four counties – Montserrado, Margibi, Grand Bassa and Bong counties – and thousands more have been reached through seeing performances on stages and in street theater performances.
The school has built a reputation for quality programming for children that engages them in positive community change while bolstering their academic success.
She added: “Our teaching model blends arts education with public achievement to create a unique means of community change through live performances and student-led projects. Our aim is to reach young people who will not easily be able to access arts programs beginning to be available in Monrovia.
“And to see arts fully integrated into schools in Liberia and a trajectory created for training young people to be art educators or for arts management with business skills.”
Late last year, Jones said they decided that the theater, for the first time, would perform ‘Murder in the Cassava Patch’ to get the students involved in their country’s literature.
When the play was staged at the RLJ Resort on December 29, 2017, more than 7,000 people watched online. But more importantly, the young people who worked to write the script and gave the performance gained a wealth of knowledge about Liberia from 50 years ago.
“This has been our first endeavor into performing the work of prominent writers. In the past, our students have always written their own plays using a community organizing model that centers community concerns from a youth perspective.
“This means giving more opportunities for the students to perform, to travel, to share their gifts and talents more broadly,” Jones said, adding, “We were so proud of the work they did with reconstructing Murder in the Cassava Patch for stage and that it helped them reach a new audience. It is such a valuable experience to imagine life before the war for young people who were not hear to see Liberia.”
But despite all this initial success, the organization still faces serious financial challenges to decentralizing its activities, since they survive on individual donor funds to take care of the students.
“It is not easy to find sponsor, but the few donors we have are doing great. We are hoping to get more of this kind of support in Liberia, though right now it is mostly international donors who give in this way. It is not easy, but when you are doing something new, there are many challenges. But we are navigating our ways to solve the challenges, gradually,” she said.
Meanwhile, the school has expressed its interest in partnering with universities and schools to ensure that every young person in Liberia has access to quality arts education and experience.
Jasmine L. Blanks Jones is a graduate of Florida A&M University with a degree in music education and has taught music in several public schools in Maryland. She is pursuing a joint PhD in education, culture and society, and in Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania and was an active member of the FAMU’s Essential Theatre.