The Will of Walltown | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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The Will of Walltown 

Joseph and Cynthia Henderson have created an amazing children's theater--but where are the kids?

In the sunlit doorway of an apparent dream come true, Joseph Henderson leans precariously toward Friday afternoon's autumn rays, balanced on crutches. The first thing you notice is the stark white brace encasing the length of his left leg. The second, his smile. Not your average, run-of-the-mill "glad-to-meet-you" smile, but a sweeping "you-won't-believe-what-I'm-about-to-tell-you" shaft of light. He leads me into his office.

"Something told me I could skateboard," he announces. He sits down before finishing his statement. "And it seems it was mistaken."

It not only told 46-year-old Henderson he could sacrifice his limbs to the pavement, but also that the actor/director/teacher could take a former Baptist church and transform it into a vibrant children's theater, a center of performing arts. "But," as Henderson puts it, "there is no mistake about that."

What was St. James Baptist Church, nestled in a quaint residential nook of Durham's Walltown community, is now Walltown Children's Theater, a community theater where Joseph and Cynthia Henderson offer instruction and programs in the performing and fine arts. The doors officially opened Oct. 6 of this year, and almost immediately, the theater showed the potential to address the unmet needs of arts-starved youths. In an age where most children are anesthetized with television, video games and high-tech gizmos, the Hendersons are attempting to introduce a therapy to revive dormant creativity. Walltown will be a place children will want to be. A place where they will want to dance and act, learn and embrace the performing arts, and discover what it is they are looking for in themselves. Henderson calls it "an avenue of success."

"It's what I was looking for when I was a child," he explains. "That something more--I didn't quite know what, but I believed it was there, and I wanted it."

Henderson believes the children in the community also want it, and that parents will devote time and energy to see that they get it. However, if what occurred Saturday is any indication of the level of devotion he can expect, then Walltown may already have its back to the wall.

When I met with him on Friday, Henderson was alone, anxiously anticipating the arrival of several potential new students. They would be auditioning that evening and the following morning for a place at Walltown, thanks to a grant from Durham Parks and Recreation. The grant will enable the theater to offer 10, perhaps more, kids free classes in jazz, tap, ballet and acting twice a week for a full year. Expecting a large turnout, Henderson says that any child who does not make the cut for free classes and entrance into the pre-professional program "will still have a place here." He's also developed a sliding pay scale to accommodate children whose parents cannot afford the full cost of tuition.

"I want them all to have an open invitation to discover something new, exciting and rewarding, just as I did when I was a young boy."

There is an intoxicating exuberance about him as he describes what it was like growing up in Durham, and how such an invitation became a life-altering experience for him.

"I wasn't a very successful child," he notes. "But I learned to be. Or should I say, I was inspired to be." An older woman in his neighborhood opened the doors to her home-based studio and introduced him to the magic of puppetry. "That one instance of enlightenment made all the difference in my life. It changed my view of the world."

Henderson's goal became clear the moment he and his wife spotted the vacant building on Berkeley Street. They knew instantly that it was the perfect place to bring young people together from diverse Durham communities and introduce them to the performing arts.

"It had ample space for two classrooms where classes could be conducted simultaneously, and, best of all, it had parking," says Henderson.

As he walks me through the building, modestly bypassing walls of plaques, countless articles and newspaper clippings lauding his accomplishments, he sporadically points to proof of his dream's legitimacy--the neatly stacked boxes of tap shoes in a hall closet, a brand new custom-made floor in the dance studio. Inside the former chapel where the dream is not quite complete, a few metal folding chairs are lined up neatly, auditorium style, across a wood floor. The raised area where a pulpit once stood is now a stage pregnant with possibilities. As he gestures, shifting his weight from one crutch to the other, he explicates his vision, pausing between words to ensure I, too, can visualize it.

Henderson's plans also include offering fencing lessons at some point, "sooner than later, if someone is willing to donate the equipment," and teaming with NCCU and RTP-based Westat, Inc. to develop a "Reading Through the Arts" program. He would like to start a music program with children writing their own operas, and in three years see Walltown on a national stage. Endless possibilities are the grist of Henderson's resolve and it is intriguing to watch him erect new dreams on top of dreams that have yet to become tenable realities. The animated dance of his words leads one to believe Walltown can assuage cultural maladies, inspire progressive social change and enhance children's lives.

So far, these hopes have been buoyed by a generous outpouring of contributions from individuals and organizations that hold the Hendersons and their work in high esteem. The dance floor was provided through a grant from the American Dance Festival, which will also install mirrors to turn it into a quality dance studio. A copy machine and three computers are gifts from Duke University's Office of Community Affairs. Author and editor of Kidsville, Mesa Somer, who also has children enrolled at Walltown, has donated children's books. Self-Help, the organization that has been a virtual lifeline for Walltown, supplied paint, staff support and much more. There are carpet remnants from Kelly Shirley and his wife, Martha Zeagler, and various odds and ends from members of the surrounding community.

Even with these laudable benefactors, completing the theater is not the challenge. Despite the enormous hard work and resolute commitment on the part of Henderson and Walltown loyalists, an overwhelming number of parents aren't responding. Saturday morning, Henderson was seated on a chair in the theater, his movements less deliberate, his shoulders slightly drooped, an indistinct, almost apologetic smile on his face. Although fliers were distributed at schools, sent home with students, and circulated throughout the neighborhood, only four kids showed up. Henderson watched the audition while tap dancing echoed from the next room, in a class lead by 20-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill student, Erin Moore. Later, when he pulled me aside to address what might have been viewed as a major setback--the extremely low turnout--the resolve in his voice contradicted his countenance. He is used to battling, if not beating, the odds.

"There are children outside playing right now who should be in here. This room should be filled. And I'm going to find a way to make that happen." In the past, Henderson has driven through neighborhoods, stopping children and parents on the street and inviting them to come visit Walltown to see what it's all about.

"I'll go back to those same kids again and again to say, 'Why haven't you stopped by? Come on over and check us out.' But kids can't get here on their own," he says. "This has to be as important to the parent as it is to the child." And he's right. Studies show that family involvement in extracurricular activities not only encourages student achievement and positive attitudes and behaviors, but also increases the likelihood of success.

As for the four who did show up, "They are here with their parents because they want to see what happens," he says. "They're curious and genuinely interested in the program." Watching the giggly foursome practice dance steps with his wife, he adds, "But they are not the kids who really need us most. And that [statement] is not about race." It's about culturally detached children, in general. Walltown recruits a wonderful mix of students of all races and ethnicities, and looks beyond those limits to identify kids lacking a creative outlet.

Joe Berhe, 14, knows about needy kids. The oldest and the only male at the audition, he emphasizes the importance of parental and community participation in youth development.

"I want to learn new things and be a movie star one day. So, I'm glad I found out [about Walltown] and that my mom wants me to be here. I don't want to be like other kids my age, wasting time and getting into trouble."

Dance student, Molly Sandick, 11, concurs. "My family wants me to be successful, and this place gives you a chance to be free. When I'm here, I don't have to think of other things I could be doing or all the stressful things in my life."

For other Walltown regulars, dance students Dominique Blue, Lee Lee Peaks and Teyonna Gore, 7, 8 and 8 respectively, "it's just fun." And that's what parents like Pat and Joe Harris want to hear. They brought their daughter, Mora, 10, to the open audition because she wanted to come.

"And we saw it as an act of courage," says Pat. "And as something that will benefit her."

Of course, Henderson knew from the start that creating Walltown would be a labor of love. Low turnout won't temper his goals. In fact, he insists his greatest obstacles are finances and time, not attendance. He'd like to see the doors of Walltown open 24 hours "so that children will always have a place to go." And he'd like to have adequate resources to enable him to spend less time recruiting and marketing and more time doing what he loves most and does best--teaching acting. His wife has a somewhat different perspective. A choreographer, former dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and a faculty member at the N.C. School of the Performing Arts, Cynthia Henderson conducts all of the movement components of Walltown. While she sees limited finances and time as factors, she believes their greatest hurdle will be the lack of mentors and volunteers.

"What's really going to make Walltown work is having a core group of people that understand that without money you can do a lot also." She explains the need to have mentors and volunteers "willing to go pick a child up, because the parent may be working on Saturday." She understands that parents have financial obligations that sometimes hinder them from participating more in extra activities outside of school. Being a parent herself, Henderson admits she has come to rely heavily on friends to help her through the tough times so that she, in turn, can be a resource, through Walltown, to someone else. That connection between parents, mentors, volunteers and Walltown creates community. And it's that partnership that will have the greatest impact on children's lives.

Henderson echoes his wife's sentiments, describing the arts as "healing." He notes that it didn't make good business sense to name the theater Walltown, "because it locks us into this community for years." But, that's exactly what they wanted--to show the community that they were making a commitment.

"We're not going anywhere," Henderson insists. And he has no intention of abandoning his dream. It is what Shakespeare called the "dauntless spirit of resolution." He and his wife have found a niche in Walltown to explore their love for and belief in children, and their advocacy for the rights of children, especially the right to have a place to "discover what they can do." They are counting on support and encouragement--like that in the form of a handwritten note from Mayor Tennyson, who happened to drive by Walltown one day and simply wanted to let Henderson know how pleased he was to see it open.

Walltown will evolve, but only in response to participants who fill its classrooms and parents and volunteers who support its endeavors.

"We're just beginning," Cynthia proclaims. "And I like the beginning of things."

And while only four kids may have turned up, Henderson believes one day people in the Durham and surrounding Triangle communities will be able to say about a famous actor or dancer, "I remember when he or she was just a kid at Walltown." The prediction may be a stretch, but it is sincere. And something tells me, he's right. EndBlock

More by Gina Streaty

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