The Rev. James Brown, associate minister of Second Baptist Church in Atlantic City, celebrated two major artistic achievements Saturday.
Brown, a founding member and president of the South Jersey Theatre Ensemble Co., commemorated the 30th anniversary of its first rehearsal at Dante Hall Theater in Atlantic City. At the same event, Brown premiered the first short film he ever wrote and produced, "Don't Throw Me Away."
"I'm celebrating being grateful on a personal level," said Brown, 61, of Egg Harbor Township, who is also the school psychologist at Pleasantville Middle School. "South Jersey has been so supportive. We try to do quality work in terms of theater over the years. I'm just grateful for audiences that have supported us over the years, and I'm grateful to God."
Brown said he was fortunate the ensemble was established just at the point when African-Americans started to attend theater performances for productions such as "Mama, I Want to Sing!," an off-Broadway gospel musical that opened in 1983, the same year as his ensemble started.
The first South Jersey Theatre Ensemble production was "Yes, God Is Real." Part of it was performed again during two celebration events Saturday.
Kaleem Shabazz, president of Masjid Muhammad mosque in Atlantic City, in remarks during the second celebration, said "Yes, God Is Real," which was performed nationwide, off-Broadway and the Apollo Theater in Harlem, sparked the new era of black theater attendance and theater writing.
He called Brown "a creative genius."
Brown spoke to the sold-out crowd of 240 people during the second afternoon session and told them "Yes, God Is Real" changed the lives of people acting in it.
"They went from the bar to the church, from church to deacons, and from deacons to ministers," said Brown before the performance of two tunes from that musical, "Holy Matrimony" and the powerful gospel hymn "The Old Rugged Cross."
Brown said celebration also was for Bishop Charles Lyles of Victory First Presbyterian in Atlantic City, who plays the lead role in "Yes, God Is Real."
"African-Americans were starting to come to see theater. So often, we would ask people, and they would say this is the first play they had ever been to. ... Part of it was the church involvement," Brown said.
"Now, after 30 years, we have moved in the direction of film, because I believe that is the way we are supposed to artistically work now. It is the time. It is the technology," Brown said.
Brown worked for the past two years on "Don't Throw Me Away." The 40-minute film is about a black child struggling to read, and the school system having a hard time finding a way to educate him. The movie also touches on money for education versus more prisons and children growing up with fathers.
All of the 12 actors in the short picture are from Atlantic or Cape May counties. The entire movie was shot in the Atlantic City area.
Elijah Mitchell, 12, who will be an eighth-grader this fall at Brigantine North Middle School, portrays the lead character, Kaleem Watford. Mitchell has starred in two plays, "The Wiz" and "Neverland," but he never acted on film previously.
"I really believe in the message," said Elijah as to why he took the role. "Everybody has that one moment of doubt on the road of success."
John Dyitt, 50, of Pleasantville, attended the second screening of the world premiere of "Don't Throw Me Away." As a father, he said, he kept his hands on his sons and didn't let them do what they wanted. One is now a sergeant in the Army and the other works for a Philadelphia newspaper.
"Our young men are very important. I didn't throw away my sons," Dyitt said.
Brown said he hopes his film will be shown as part of Atlantic City Cinefest, taking place Oct. 11 to 13. He wants to submit the movie for consideration for other film festivals, but he wants to be selective in his choices.
"I'm also interested in the education field, that whole industry, as far as showing it to teachers or training. It can be a warmup ... to sensitize them to the young men that they will be teaching if they come into an urban area. The educational arena is something we would like to see this exposed to," said Brown, who added his low-budget film was directed by Al Mitchell, of Atlanta.
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