At STEAM Summer Camp, Students Learn From One Of Their Own

Lucy Gellman | July 21st, 2022

At STEAM Summer Camp, Students Learn From One Of Their Own

Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture  |  Westville  |  Monk Youth Jazz

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Chase W. Dillon at the camp. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Chase W. Dillon turned his love for theater into a viable career path before the eighth grade. Now, he wants young people—especially those who look like him—to know that they can do it too.

Chase is a young Black actor who has held roles in The Underground Railroad, The Harder They Fall, and Disney’s Haunted Mansion among several other projects. Monday morning, he brought that message to the Monk Center’s Talented and Creative Youth Camp, speaking to students as they kicked the week off with a crash course in improv acting and building an arts career from the ground up.

The camp, which places dance, singing, and music alongside medicine, robotics and chess, unfolds at Davis Street Magnet School in New Haven’s Upper Westville neighborhood. It is in its second year of pandemic-era adaptations, including a rotating door of visitors from lawyers, educators, urban planners, medical professionals, actors and musicians. Like last year, it is funded by American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars that the city received.

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Marcella Monk Flake.  "I want these children to know they can do anything," she said. Lucy Gellman Photo.

“I want them [students] to see themselves in every walk of life,” said Marcella Monk Flake, who leads the camp with her husband, Dudley Flake, and their daughter, Makeda Brown. “Chase is a regular kid just like them. He’s from Connecticut, and his family has roots in New Haven. I want these children to know they can do anything.” 

The camp has grown out of Monk Flake’s longtime practice of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) education. Born and raised in New Haven, she  rarely saw herself reflected in professional settings growing up, and wanted to flip the script for future generations. For almost four decades, she was an educator in the New Haven Public Schools' Talented and Gifted (TAG) program. Then in 2015, she founded the Monk Youth Jazz and STEAM Collective with Dudley after retiring.

In addition to jobs in medicine, law, and science, she tries to center the arts wherever she can. Brown, who is a marriage and family therapist, does the social and emotional aspect of the camp, Monk Flake said. 

So when she heard that Chase—who may be most recognized for his role as Homer in The Underground Railroad—would be in town, she asked if he could make a stop in New Haven. For years, she’s known his mother, Metashar Dillon, through her work as a hairdresser and salon owner. When Monk Flake was growing up, Chase’s family owned a salon on upper Dixwell Avenue called California Hair Design. It was there that years of relationships and social networks were born each time a customer walked through the door and became extended family.

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Kaiyani Jones and Karynn Hardy. Kaiyani said she wants to be a doctor, inspired by the work that her mother is doing to care for people in her work at a nursing home. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

As rain hammered down on the school’s roof, Chase entered the camp, stepping through the doorway so unassumingly that no one looked up or noticed at first. Students in the thick of a chess game continued to move their pieces against a black-and-red board. A few feet away, Karynn Hardy and Kaiyani Jones role played as doctor and patient, Kaiyani holding a stethoscope to Hardy’s chest. Across the room, a cluster of campers gathered around a tower built from bright, interlocking plastic pieces.

Only after Monk Flake introduced him did the room fall quiet, students aware that there was a celebrity in their midst. One by one, they put down what they were doing and filed into the auditorium, where a video screen dropped from the ceiling. As Flake fiddled with tech equipment, a dozen students took the floor and began to move with the brassy opening of Beyonce’s 2018 Coachella performance, their bodies springing to life. For the past weeks, they have been learning about traditions at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

In the front row, Chase watched each move, his eyes crinkling at the edges over a crisp N95 mask, the loops doubled at his ears. The clean sound of a drumline filled the room. Students side-stepped, drawing their hands to their chests and extending their arms. They marched forward in place. When they finished, filing back behind a curtain, the bleachers exploded into applause. Counselors, senior campers and a few parents cheered students on. 

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Nisaa Williams, D'arie Sheats, Mason Williams, Chase W. Dillon. Lucy Gellman Photos.

It was a perfect opening for the actor. Born and raised in Bloomfield, Conn., he told campers that he knew he wanted to act seriously by the time he was seven, and asked his mom how to make it happen. As he tells it, it was not long before he was in an actors’ boot camp that sent him to Las Vegas, where he performed as part of a showcase. Afterwards, he found an agent that wanted to work with him.

“Start young,” he said. “Start when you’re at this age and great things will come. I want to get more young people into the field.”

He’s had to work hard, he added. Because he is often on a set somewhere out of the state, he travels with both his mom and a private tutor, who makes sure he is staying on track with his schoolwork. In just five years, he has acted alongside and been directed by Barry Jenkins, Tiffany Haddish, Michelle Buteau, Jill Scott, LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, and Owen Wilson among others.

He’s now working on a number of projects and collaborations, including a superhero film and his own foray into stop motion animation.

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Amani Edwards, Morgan Monk, Nisaa Williams and Rielyne Johnson. Lucy Gellman Photo.

As he does, he said, “giving back to the community” is always at the top of his mind. During the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, he worked to provide food to Connecticut families through Kingdom International Economic Development Corporation, of which he is an active part alongside his mother. Monday, that led him to an interest in passing on some of the quick responsive acting skills that had helped him break into the field.

After playing a short interview he’d done with New Black Wall Street Market Radio, he scanned the young faces in the auditorium. In the back row, brothers D’aire and D’arie Sheats sat shoulder to shoulder, wiggling as they listened. Closer to the front, a bedazzled pineapple glowed from the front of Amani Edwards’ shirt. Monk Flake stood with her hands clasped at the front of the room.

“What about something interactive?” she asked. Hands went up across the room.

Chase didn’t miss a beat. Almost as quickly as the word “improv” had rolled off his tongue, a small knot of students had formed on the floor, waiting for a prompt.

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Morgan Monk, Nisaa Williams, Amani Edwards, Mason Williams and D'arie Sheats. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

You all are mixing up about something,” he said to D’arie Sheats and Mason Williams. “Then—” he motioned to Morgan Monk, Amani Edwards and Nisaa Williams—“You guys see it. What do you do?”

The young actors paused for a moment, and then D’arie and Mason began to debate. Starbucks was the best coffee shop, D’arie suggested. No way: it had nothing on Dunkin’, Mason shot back. They began to swing at each other, making sure not to make contact as they acted it out.

Nisaa burst into the scene. “What’s going on here!?” she said, the words loud enough to reach the back rows.

“There’s nothing wrong with liking two different places,” chimed in Amani. It was as if she had broken a spell: D’arie and Mason relaxed almost immediately. Chase called the scene, and the audience clapped.

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Amaei Robinson, who later said that she was glad to have the chance to try out acting. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

As a second group came down to the floor-turned-stage, students began to whisper and chat in the bleachers. Monk Flake looked up at students. “Quiet on set!” she yelled, and almost immediately, it was.

On stage, students were play-grappling with a school bully. He ran toward the group, fists up. A few of the students pulled back, suddenly fearful. A rising freshman at New Haven Academy, Amaei Robinson intervened, graceful as she moved forward.

“You must not fight each other!” she cried. “You must all cherish one another!”

“Stay in the scene!” Chase cautioned as a few students dissolved into laughter. “Stay in the scene!”

For the next 15 minutes, scenes rotated in and out at the front of the room. As students filed out of the auditorium for lunch, several formed a cloud around Chase, peppering him with questions. Monk Center mom Delores Williams praised him for his role in The Underground Railroad.

“Even though it was historic fiction, it reminded me that it was possible,” she said of how heavy and traumatic some scenes in the series were. “It was phenomenal to watch you carry that.”

Back up in the bleachers, D’aire said he hadn’t considered acting before Monday’s visit, and now wanted to know more about it.    

“Being an actor wasn’t one of my first goals, but it’s one of my goals,” he said. “I learned that you really have to put your soul into it.”

Beside him, rising second grader Tyshon Jones jumped in.

“It just made me feel happy,” he said. “I will say that I wanna be an actor in my dreams, and if it comes true I’m gonna be famous. This is my first time acting in front of people.”

Watch Friday's performance from the camp here. Learn more about Talented and Creative Youth Camp here. Learn more about Party With A Purpose, a fundraiser that Chase Dillon and Tiffany Haddish are holding this fall, here.