Taking a dearth of African American roles into her own hands in Cherry Hill

Keisha Blount rehearses Cherry Hill East students - (from left) Aminah Taylor, Nadia Adams, Dante Encarnacion, and Angie Waters - in "Uptown," which she wrote to mark Black History Month. Blount, a 2005 East graduate, returns each year to direct.
Keisha Blount rehearses Cherry Hill East students - (from left) Aminah Taylor, Nadia Adams, Dante Encarnacion, and Angie Waters - in "Uptown," which she wrote to mark Black History Month. Blount, a 2005 East graduate, returns each year to direct. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 02, 2013

As a Cherry Hill High School East student passionate about theater, Keisha Blount thought that she didn't fit in shows like Guys and Dolls, Grease, and The Sound of Music.

"It's very difficult as an African American in Cherry Hill to be in the theater department," she said, noting that black characters are not featured in most shows. "There aren't as many opportunities to be in the spotlight."

Blount, who graduated from East in 2005, shied away from school performances for two years and gravitated toward an annual show held to mark Black History Month, featuring students from the school's African American Culture Club.

"It catered to my culture and gave me an opportunity that didn't necessarily come to me," she said.

Years later, Blount again has a leading role in the show, though she isn't center stage. She took over as director in 2009 and on Saturday will direct her fourth production - one she wrote.

Uptown follows a young African American man who comes to Harlem in the 1920s with dreams of being a musician. The show, which involves about 20 Cherry Hill students, features characters based loosely on Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, and music from the period.

In recent years, the Black History Month show has been a collection of performances based on a theme, including scenes from black Broadway and black history not often taught in schools.

Blount, 25, wanted to get more ambitious.

"I said, you know, I really want to do, like, an actual production," she said.

She decided to focus on the Harlem Renaissance and spent months researching and writing the script. When she shared her work with students in October, she also taught them about the era.

"It's really important that they are well versed not only in the script, but also in the time period," she said.

She had to do some of the work from a distance. Blount, who attended Howard University and earned a master's degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania, lives in Washington, where she is a program coordinator for AmeriCorps.

Every weekend, however, she returns to Cherry Hill to work with students on the show. "I know how important it is to black thespians," she said. "That's kind of been my motivation from afar."

Students in the cast have told Blount that they identify with how she felt in high school, she said.

While some also participate in school productions, "I think that Uptown is a space that just allows for something that's more specific," she said.

Tom Weaver, theater director at Cherry Hill East, agreed with Blount that leading roles written for African Americans aren't as numerous, but said the situation isn't specific to East.

"For every Raisin in the Sun or To Kill a Mockingbird, there's probably 100 other plays" that don't feature African Americans, Weaver said.

The theater program - which recently produced To Kill a Mockingbird - does not discriminate in casting, he said.

Weaver has worked with Blount to prepare for Saturday's show, which will be performed at East with the help of the school's technical crew.

The annual show has been supported for more than 25 years by the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association. The school district provides the venue, which alternates between West and East High Schools.

The cast includes students as young as grade school. Some have been involved for years, through the culture club, older siblings, or Blount.

"She's persuasive," said Darius Waters, 17, a senior at West, who joined the show after Blount found him hanging out after school. "She's a natural leader."

Blount "knows what living in Cherry Hill was like," said Ebony Thorpe, 17, a junior at East. "She's also really young, so she has that eye."

During a rehearsal Wednesday night in a cafeteria at East, Blount pressed a finger to her lips, watching the students take a scene she'd written from the top.

"Who are you? Do you know?" they began, speaking in unison. "Caught in between two souls, two thoughts . . . American or Negro, you must choose one."

Blount interrupted.

"You guys need to act," she said. "Right now, you guys sound like you're reciting -"

"A poem?" one student offered.

"Not even a poem," Blount said. "Like the Pledge of Allegiance."

She told them to be lively. "I want to hear everybody's individual voices."


"Uptown" will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturday at Cherry Hill High School East, 1750 Kresson Rd. The free show is open to the community.

Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3232 or mhanna@phillynews.com.

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