South Carolina Instructor Helps Students Find Their Voice Through Drama

Making sense of the world is challenging for adults—and even more so for youths. Events and social conditions affect kids, but they often lack the voice and means to express their views.

Tiffany James, a Columbia, South Carolina-based performer and blogger, launched Acting Up with Tiffany in 2015 to help teens and pre-teens find their voice through drama.

She told NewsOne that her goal is to provide students with “a space to express themselves and shine a light on social issues impacting their lives.”

The subject matter in James’ arts activism class centers on involvement in issues that affect the Columbia community from the perspective of the youths. Some of the issues the students have chosen to tackle so far include bullying and hunger.

James said childhood hunger is a problem in South Carolina that impacts scores of Columbia residents in a very personal way. And bullying is a situation that students, unfortunately, encounter all too often, that her kids needed to confront.

“It’s about addressing the issue and spreading awareness through their art and their talent, which is drama,” she said.

The acting coach admires the work of Anna Deavere Smith, the actress and playwright who recently took on the school-to-prison pipeline issue. One of her takeaways from reading Smith’s book, Letters to a Young Artist, is that acting is about building bridges between the actor, character, and audience.

“I want the audience to connect to the characters that the youth create,” said James, who’s clearly passionate about her craft. “I want the audience to understand situations from their point of view. By putting on the child’s shoe, it encourages empathy from the audience.”

Her inaugural class consisted of Black girls, who tend to be drawn to acting more than Black boys. The girls are typically more receptive to expressing their feelings. Boys, on the other hand, open up “once they see the big picture, and they become eager to express themselves.”

James recently landed a key partnership with the Richland County Recreation Commission. She will soon hold weekly drama classes at the Caughman Road Park in Hopkins, South Carolina, for kids age 8-15.

“Acting Up with Tiffany is a very unique way of introducing many children in Richland County to acting,” the commission told NewsOne. “We embrace her theme of: Lights! Camera! Action! Act up and out with Acting Up with Tiffany!”

The commission said it looks forward to seeing the students’ performances on stage.

Creating an original play is a group project, a process that James oversees and guides, but avoids directing. She said it’s not hard to get ideas flowing when her students have a space where they’re not being judged or evaluated by adults.

They come up with an issue, discuss their own experience or the experience of someone who faced that issue, and create a story from those experiences. James works with them on developing the characters and plot. They write the script and perform the play.

A Columbia native, James “caught the performing bug” at age 4 when she began singing in her church choir. She’s been active in the city’s art scene, where there has been a lack of opportunity for African-American women—a problem that she said exists in Hollywood and small theater groups nationwide. She decided to fill the gap by creating opportunities for youths in her community.

She laments that many school districts have cut arts education from their curriculum. “They need structure but also an avenue of expression,” she added.

James recalled a conversation with actress Erika Alexander, from the sitcom Living Single, who talked to her about creating one’s own narrative if we want society to see us differently.

“That’s exactly what I am doing, providing an avenue where youth can create and tell their own stories from their perspective,” she said.

PHOTO CREDIT: Kayla Mallett

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