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Show teems with fun, meaning

An original play gives 40 children an opportunity to learn about African-American history and the arts.

It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The air conditioner is putting forth a pitiful effort. Paulette Johnson hasn't eaten lunch yet. Or breakfast, for that matter.

She fans herself with a script.

"Stop!" she booms and the 10 youngsters before her freeze. "He was the first African-American. Don't say that low! Say that with pride and dignity. Now pick it up."

It's just three days before show time, and Johnson is all business. The summer camp kids from the Enoch Davis Center are in their last few rehearsals of an original play that they'll perform for the public at 6 p.m. Thursday in the center parking lot at 1111 18th Ave. S. The event is free.

Johnson wrote the production, which is a montage of African-American history set to dance. Although she originally signed on to work with the children one day a week, lately the community outreach coordinator from Ruth Eckerd Hall has been coming four days a week.

"I'm an artist," she said during a break as she sipped a carton of juice. "Whatever time has to be put in to make it right, to make it polished, that's what we're going to do. I want these kids to look good."

And so, apparently, do they.

At the Lamar house, the girls can't stop practicing their steps. Three of them are in the camp and will be performing or helping with the show. Sharmae, 13, is working with costumes. Her twin, Nicole, 13, is performing, as is Ebony, 7.

"They get into it and they start doing the dance without any music," said Sharmae. "They dance and dance."

Forty children, ages 6 to 14, will participate in the play, which is called: To Know Your Past Supports a Strong Foundation for Your Future. Johnson choreographed the entire production, except for the opening dance, which was choreographed by Marketa Robinson of the Dun Du Dole Urban Ballet.

The play touches on the slave trade in the 1700s, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freeing slaves, segregation in Florida, and a host of achievements by African-Americans locally, statewide and nationally.

Before the play begins, there will be a parking lot party for the actors and their families. Volunteers will fire up grills and cook hamburgers, hot dogs and ribs for the group.

"People are bringing covered dishes," said Wanda Mitchell, program director at Enoch Davis Center. "It's going to be big. The kids have done a great job. They've worked hard."

Johnson, whose resume lists a fine arts degree from Howard University and a stint with the Alvin Ailey Dance School in New York, said she hopes the children not only enjoy the thrill of performing, but perhaps take a little of the experience with them on their life's journey.

"First, the kids get to learn about the history of their people in Florida," Johnson said. "A few of them want to be actors and singers and dancers, but the others may gain an appreciation for the arts. It's so important."

But it may not come without a few bumps along the way.

"My mom's going to be there," said Robin Williams, 11. "My whole family's going to be there. But I'm kind of, um, stage-frightened. Sometimes I go onstage and I forget my part. But I always remember it at the end."