New Haven Artists Of The Year

Lucy Gellman | December 23rd, 2022

New Haven Artists Of The Year

Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School  |  Co-Op High School  |  Culture & Community  |  Education & Youth  |  Long Wharf Theatre  |  Arts & Culture  |  Common Ground  |  Wilbur Cross High School  |  Nathan Hale School




Top: Some of the educators who made magic this year. Jermaine Cowan as Mustafa in a summer production of The Lion King, Jr. earlier this year. Lucy Gellman File Photos.

They made Pride Rock come alive from the middle of New Haven’s East Shore. They turned Sherman Parkway into a corner beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, then put it to music. They proved that under the right circumstances, anyone can look good in a wimple—and harmonize in one too. 

In New Haven’s classrooms, on its stages, in its summer camps and cafeterias, theater teachers became the 2022 people of the year. They did it on stretched and sometimes nonexistent budgets, calling in reinforcements at the eleventh hour. They rebuilt whole departments one warbling note at a time. They suspended and reset expectations, pouring everything they had into their students. 

Sometimes, they were students or recent graduates themselves, determined not to let performances fall through the cracks.

They showed up for each other, in a way that maybe only educators do. Then they often returned home to children and lives and grading of their own. And they did it again, and again, and again—because they knew that students needed it.

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Top: Director Ty Scurry standing in for a student during tech week for BKLYN at James Hillhouse High School. Robert Esposito and Christi Sargent at The Magical Freaking Bird earlier this year. Lucy Gellman File Photos.

The truth is, we could have named all New Haven arts educators people of the year, and still had a list that was incomplete. Across New Haven, students have told our writers over and over again how the fine and performing arts are saving their lives every day. We’ve seen it firsthand in choreography that takes on mental health and the Black Lives Matter Movement, public art projects dedicated to grief and healing, Grammy-nominated teachers who stay long after school has ended and choir performances that are knitting school communities back together note by note.

It’s not just anecdotal. In 2019, the Brookings Institute conducted its first large-scale study on arts education, and found that students engaged in the arts were less likely to be subject to punitive disciplinary infractions, improved their writing and critical thinking skills, and were more likely to be compassionate toward others. In March of this year, a peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence showed that increased youth engagement in arts and culture led to fewer incidents of reportedly antisocial or criminalized behaviors, or what the authors referred to as RACBs. 

Any arts educator could have told you this in their sleep. Some probably did. We hope you listened.

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Top: Christopher LeMieux's eighth graders return to the stage during BRAMS' Winterfest. Bottom: Clockwise from top left: BRAMS students Edward Matthews Ramos, Leah Jones, and teachers Daniel Sarnelli and Christopher Lemieux. Lucy Gellman File Photos.

But this was a year—spanning two semesters of two different school years—in which school theater bounced back to in-person performance for the first time in almost three full years. At the beginning of the year, it was only a whisper, mostly quiet as schools rode out the Omicron wave and found their dramatic footing. By this month, it was a resounding roar. Here are some of the performances that stood out, made our hearts sing, and left us in tears. 

In February, middle school students at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School (BRAMS) kicked off the year with original performances for Black History Month, celebrating both the often-untold legacy of Black Americans and the beauty of oral tradition that has survived centuries of trauma and diaspora. In a quiet classroom that could have been mistaken for a black box theater, theater teachers Daniel Sarnelli and Christopher LeMieux worked through stage adaptations of A Computer Called Katherine, based on the life of NASA's Katherine Johnson, and a new, BRAMS-specific spin on the Ashanti folktale Anansi the Spider.

Months later, they rallied around students as they returned to in-person performance at an all-school Winterfest. This fall, both have been able to grow their craft under Arts Coordinator Tavares Bussey, who took over the role after Sylvia “Ms. Pet” Petriccione retired last summer after 23 years at the school.

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Top: Wilbur Cross Choreographer Jennifer Kaye, Music Director Matt Durland, and Co-directors Heather Bazinet and Salvatore DeLucia. Bottom: Students in Freaky Friday: The Musical. Lucy Gellman File Photos.

It was just the beginning. In March, Wilbur Cross High School opened the month with Freaky Friday: The Musical, a project of the Lights Up Drama Club that marked the first performance back on the school's stage in two years. In March 2020, it was Cross that mourned a production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying when Covid-19 hit during tech week. 

After 24 months of pandemic-era knowledge and adaptations, both students and their mentors learned to take nothing for granted. In interviews before the performance, many students recalled the isolation and anxiety of online learning, and pinpointed theater as the thing that was helping them get back to themselves. Read the article here.

“The joy of it is just that we get to be here,” said Heather Bazinet, a speech pathologist at Wilbur Cross who co-directed Lights Up with English and drama teacher Salvatore DeLucia, in an interview at the school in March. “Just that we get to be together, and to create something. It's been a little while.”

It kicked off a joyful, song-filled spring of high school performances. Exactly two years after Covid-19 shut down their performance of RENT, students at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School returned for a triumphant, funny, smart, and sizzling production of Sister Act with a cast and crew relearning to make musical theater in person. 

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Top: Teacher Rob Esposito: "I wanted to do something fun, filled with joy, filled with hope. This is literally our welcome back, our grand moment.” Bottom: Rachel Kearse as Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School. Lucy Gellman File Photos. 

Directed by drama teacher Robert Esposito and then-senior Sofia Carrillo, the show became a testament to how it takes a village to make a musical theater production. Dance teacher Christine Kershaw-Hobson jumped on to choreograph. Musical direction came from 2014 alum Kevin James; there was a live pit from band director Patrick Smith, and vocal direction from choral music teacher Harriett Alfred. 

For many of the upperclassmen in the show, it was an opportunity to shine after two years of adaptation, including a school musical recorded online and student-penned multi-week production that came to mailboxes across New Haven. In June, graduating senior Rachel Kearse won a Stephen Sondheim award for her performance as Delores Van Cartier, an honor that sent her on to Broadway for the Jimmy Awards. Read about that here. 

At the end of March, dreams, nightmares, alternate realities and dispatches from the future collided at 222 Sargent Dr., as 11 high school students jumped headfirst into the regional finals of the Next Narrative Monologue Competition at Long Wharf Theatre. For eight weeks, they worked closely with teaching artists Julius Stone and Jacqueline Brown and Artistic Associate Cheyenne Barboza on a number of contemporary monologues written by living Black playwrights. 

It marked both a departure from the long-loved August Wilson Monologue Competition and a return to the physical stage after last year’s virtual competition finals, during which Co-Op senior Juwan Lee gave a soul-stirring performance of Boy Willie from the Piano Lesson. Read about it here. NextNarrative7

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Top: The finale of the Next Narrative competition. Jazmine Williamson File Photo. Bottom: Hillhouse students Amir Lee, Katrina Evans, Janae Branham, and Mekhei Johnson during tech week for BKLYN earlier this year. All of them described the cast and crew as extended family. Lucy Gellman File Photo.

In April, students at James Hillhouse High School built entire worlds in the musical BKLYN, with which the Academic Theatre Company made a triumphant return to the stage. Two years after the group’s production of The Wiz became a casualty of Covid-19, students came back to bring the school—and themselves—the play their peers never got to have. 

In the process, they became a tight-knit family (we mean that literally: every student interviewed for an article about this performance used the word “family”).  At the helm was Director Tyheed “Ty” Scurry, a 2018 graduate of Wilbur Cross High School whose love for musical theater led him to form a drama club at Hillhouse in 2019. That momentum has continued this fall, as students rehearse for a production of Milk Like Sugar that is set to open early next year. Read about the performance here.  

“I didn’t think this moment was gonna happen,” Scurry said during tech week in April. “The way money and rights and rehearsals went—everything that could have been thrown our way, it was thrown our way this year. And it was just crazy. And now that we’re here and we’re back, it’s like, ‘I think I can do this.’ This year, it’s lifted my spirits in terms of what can be accomplished with high school students.”



Top: Jizir Feliciano as Freddie in The Magical Freaking Bird. Robert Esposito Photo. Bottom: Students and mentors after a performance of the Dwight/Edgewood Project in June. Lucy Gellman File Photo.

Back on College Street, May saw The Magical Freaking Bird at Co-Op, a production that brought together 28 graduating seniors, one playwright, two drama teachers and a village of educators. Written by a.k. payne with members of the class of 2022, the work told the story of a city and its residents, who speak into being a bird that can grant wishes if it is captured and grounded. It was the first time in two years that seniors were able to perform together in person. This fall, teachers and students returned to the tradition with Read The Fine Print: A Pirate’s Story, a senior play written by comfort ifeoma katchy. 

And then students were on to a summer in which acting, particularly musical theater, helped them build friendships, beat back isolation and anxiety, and boost self-confidence. In June, just before the end of the year, students at Mauro Sheridan staged The Tempest with the help of Elm Shakespeare Company. Later that month, the Dwight/Edgewood Project made a jubilant, moving, and laughter-laced return to the Off Broadway Theater in downtown New Haven for the first time since 2019. What they came up with redefined how we understand the limits of theater. Read about it here.

Often, students spoke about how theater helped them loosen up, particularly as they dipped into music and choreography for the first time. In July, the Shubert Theatre’s summer camp turned 10, and came back to life with several theater teachers who had once been students in the city’s schools, including Carrillo, Sumiah Gay, Darius Cummings and Zariyah Thomas. 


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Top: The Lion King, Jr. makes it to production, sans masks. Bottom: Briana Dawson and her son, Amiel Johnson or AJ, in July of this year. Lucy Gellman File Photos.

Across town, Nathan Hale teacher Briana “Ms. B” Dawson, high school counselors, and a multi-grade cast and crew conjured a peaceable kingdom as they brought The Lion King Jr. to life at the school, nestled in the city's East Shore neighborhood. For weeks, students rehearsed for the play at an in-person musical theater summer camp, the second at the school since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020. 

“I feel like our motto should be ‘Big shows for little people,’ because we go all out,” joked Dawson at the time. A recipient of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding—which kept it free for kids involved—the work showed audiences in real time what theater can do for students whose lives have been upended by a pandemic. Read about it here.

That momentum continued this fall—sometimes unseen, as schools jumped back into rehearsals for projects that have yet to make it to the main stage (Co-Op is already working on a production of Hairspray for next March; Hillhouse’s Milk Like Sugar is expected in January or February), field trips to see Broadway in action, and scripts that are still hot off the press. In November, MaryLee Delaney brought together public and private school students for a performance of Descendants: The Musical at the Shubert Theatre, as Sacred Heart Academy’s theater department revved back to life in perfect harmony.  

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Top: Jaminda Blackmon and Giuseppina Miller at Wexler-Grant Community School earlier this month. Bottom: Stephanie Eiss, Sarah Bowles, and Katy Finn after the first performance of Expect The Unexpected last week. Lucy Gellman File Photos. 

At the beginning of the fall semester, Common Ground High School rolled out a new class in devised theater, where students have a chance to talk about mental health, safety in and out of school, personal relationships and anxiety—and earn college credit in the process. A collaboration among Common Ground, Elm Shakespeare Company, and Southern Connecticut State University, it has created a vital window into students’ lived experiences—and given them control of a narrative of which they are often left out. Earlier this month, students premiered their final project, Expect The Unexpected, at the John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts at SCSU. 

And in the middle of this month, music teacher Jaminda Blackmon and her students at Wexler Grant Community School premiered WGTV’s Christmas Special: We Care About You!, an effort to teach young people about homelessness through the dramatic arts. Students raised funds for Columbus House, which Blackmon matched at 50 percent. Because the school has no drama department, Blackmon wrote, researched, cast, directed, and financed the play, fundraising through popcorn sales.  

“I love the kids and I love seeing them grow,” she said in an interview last week, shortly before the school’s first performance of the play. “I see the impact that it makes. It’s a calling.”