There’s no empowerment like self-empowerment. In fact, it’s the only real way to stand on your own feet and make it in this world. Hence, Imhotep Science Academy (ISA).
Under the umbrella of the Cultural Wellness Center, ISA affords young people ages 13 to 18 an invaluable learning experience, melding requisite academics with a thorough education regarding African and African-American culture, tradition, and heritage. You can’t ask for stronger social development tools. Given that role models are key to teenagers, intrinsically impacting their growth (just look how many black kids emulate media-endorsed thugs and wind up leading dead-end lives), ISA reinforces for youth such widely honored icons as Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Marcus Garvey, as well as generally overlooked figures like African educator-warrior queen Yaa Asantewa and pioneering genius Imhotep. (By the by, Imhotep of 27th Century B.C. Egypt is acknowledged as the first engineer, architect and physician in world history. And you thought he was just the Terminator-like bad guy in The Mummy. Don’t feel bad, so did I.)
Garvey said, “A man with no knowledge of his history is like a tree with no roots.” The same goes for women and it certainly goes for youngsters—in whose hands the future rests. ISA co-founder Anura Si-Asar attests, “[Our] students first and foremost know they are black and African. That they have a responsibility [to be] seriously engaged in developing their community. These students walk with confidence, competence, and a critical eye for what they, their families, and their communities need. Many [past graduates] are in college. If not in college they are [still] contributing. They come back to the academy and assist with the [upcoming] generation. It’s beautiful to see.”
The other co-founder is Rekhet Si-Asar. “ISA [teaches] students how to think, rather than what to think,” she says. “It aims to show students that first and foremost, they are connected to a lineage of people who have been surgeons, physicists, engineers, inventors, botanists, chemists and so on. They learn that we do not do science for science’s sake. We engage in the process of scientific inquiry in order to help heal our people, advance our community, and solve our problems.” With chronic dysfunction perennially plaguing urban black families, rendering scores of them struggling, single parent homes, students benefit from seeing this husband-and-wife team work together to invest in youth. “We know there has to be an impact,” continues Si-Asar, “because we see it and hear it from our own children who have or currently are participating in the Academy. We can only hope that the symbol of couples working together, building together and attempting to give back to our community what has been given to us will be seen when the children and families look at us.”
The two bring considerable credentials to the task. Anura is a former educator for Harvest Preparatory School and Minneapolis Public Schools and she is a Minneapolis Public Schools psychologist.
February 20, there’s a production of Mixed Blood Theatre’s Daughters of Africa at the Capri Theater to benefit ISA students who’ve put their shoulders to the scholastic wheel and qualify to attend a tour of Minnesota colleges and universities. The purpose is to help fund this year’s tour. March 28 through April 3, ISA scholars will visit 12 institutions, including Minnesota State University in Mankato; Carleton College and St. Olaf College in Northfield; and the University of Minnesota—Duluth.
Daughters of Africa, scripted by Syl Jones with licensed music, stars Thomasina Petrus, veteran of such hit shows as Lady Day Live at the Emerson Bar and Grill, Point of Revue, and Two Queens, One Castle. Thomasina Petrus in Daughters of Africa is a triumph. She brings to bear a remarkably versatile vocal range for this fantasy pastiche of vignettes that travels through time to illuminate the accomplishments of historic black women. Depending on who you listen to, Petrus has been performing the piece for 16 years (according to Mixed Blood’s reckoning) or 18 (going by hers). Either way, she’s been at it long enough that when she steps on stage, she lives and breathes the show, which means the audience is in for a rewarding experience.
When you show up, bring your wallet. Petrus’s CD If Only…Billie Unsung is completely sold out, but you will be able to get some cashew brittle for munching. Thomasina backed into a little cottage industry a few years ago. She whipped up a batch of brittle, shared it with friends and neighbors. Next thing you know it was gone and folk were asking for more. And more. Whether someone suggested it or she came up with it on her own, she got the sensible idea to market her culinary creation. It’s been a bet-you-can’t-each-just-one success. Her slogan for Thomasina’s Cashew Brittle, though, is “All It’s Cracked Up To Be.” Get it? Brittle? Cracked up? Never mind. The Web site for the candy is thomasinascashewbrittle.com. The site for her music and theatre is thomasinaproductions.com.
Petrus blew in off the road for a state tour of Daughter of Africa and, before taking off again, sat with me at Net Café in Minneapolis.
How has Daughters of Africa changed over the years?
Since I first started doing it, the show pretty much starts the same. Over time, we’ve had to edit. To add new accomplishments. Condoleezza Rice, a monologue on Oprah Winfrey. We had [one] in place for Janet Jackson, but we took that out [owing to] the Super Bowl thing. The debacle. Nipplegate. We had taken her out to put in, maybe, Beyoncé. It wound up being Queen Latifah. And we have Michelle Obama.
How do you keep the show fresh for yourself?
I keep the scripts. We always make changes. Every year [Mixed Blood artistic director] Jack Reuler will ask, “Do you want a rehearsal?” And I always say, “Yeah.” It’s always with [the show’s director] Warren Bowles. He’ll oversee. Walk through it with me. See what changes should be made. I have certain weaknesses as an actor that I fall into, and having another eye looking in helps.
You didn’t start out acting.
I started as a dancer.
Well, in Point of Revue, you just nailed it.
Thank you. Mixed Blood Theatre, the pieces I’ve done there. And Penumbra. They’ve given me most of the acting tools that I have. I’ve absorbed a lot from being able to watch other actors work in a cast. Like Regina [Marie Williams], Aimee K. Bryant, and all these people I’ve been in shows with. I had a wealth of opportunity and tried to take advantage of it as much as I could, by being in the presence of people I consider to be wonderful artists who really take their craft seriously.
How do feel about Daughters of Africa being part of something that’s going to help black youth further their education?
That’s wonderful. It’s the whole reason I do this show year after year. Exactly for stuff like this. It’s a responsibility I’m glad to have. One of the students is my niece, too. Her name is ZaNia Coleman. She’s an amazing child.
What’s next for you?
I’ve started with another jazz group. I used to play with Walter Chancellor. He’s at IPR [Institute of Production & Recording] now. This group has named itself Xtended Play featuring Thomasina. We’ve just started a few months ago. We have a house gig in Chanhassen for the next year at a place called The School 2, every third weekend of the month. Which is nice. You never get a house gig in this town anymore. We’ll try to build a following there, while we work on our own sound. Also, this is the right time in my career to start touring with my music, doing festivals and things like that. Just keep getting better at what I do.
Daughters of Africa starring Thomasina Petrus is at the Capri Theater February 20 at 7:00 p.m. The hour-long play includes a dialogue with Thomasina Petrus and closing commentary from Atum Azzahir and Mahmoud El-Kati. Tickets: $12.50 in advance, $15.00 at the door.