Published 12:00 am Friday, October 14, 2005
Students from Alabama’s Black Belt began settling down a few minutes before the show started.
All confusion and chaos and they comes with such a group ceased when Rafiki sang the first lyrics to theme song of “The Lion King.”
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Hale, Greene, Marengo and Sumter County students seemed initially stunned by the actress’s powerful voice, but they quickly broke out in emphatic applause.
Two hundred Black Belt students were given the rare opportunity Thursday to travel more than 100 miles from their homes to watch the Broadway production of “The Lion King” at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex.
A selection of students from Akron Elementary, North Sumter Middle School, Warrior Academy, Marengo High School, Sweet Water High School, Linden Elementary, Greensboro West High School and Greensboro West Elementary were chosen to attend.
Half of those students would not have had the opportunity without the generosity of the Friends of Hale County and member Law Lamar, a philanthropist and certified public accountant from Birmingham.
“To these kids, this is everything,” Lamar said, as he waited for groups of Black Belt students and teachers to arrive at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens where Chick-Fil-A provided 200 bag lunches prior to the matinee show at the BJCC.
Sweet Water High School sixth graders Chelsea Ballard and Jordan Cagle were full of anticipation as they sat along the bank of the pond at the Botanical Gardens eating their picnic lunch.
“Our teacher told us about 15-foot giraffes,” Ballard said, “and lots of other cool stuff.”
“I think it’s gonna be way more exciting than the movie ‘Lion King,'” Cagle said.
Most expected the play to be much different than Walt Disney’s 1994 version of “The Lion King.” While the plot was basically the same, the theatrical version introduced more details to the story.
“I don’t know how they can remember and do all this stuff,” said Evie Lawson, a tenth grader from Greensboro West High School. One of the few older students in the crowd, Lawson could not hide his admiration for the actors and actresses on stage.
The Black Belt students sat among nearly 3,000 people in the BJCC Concert Hall as they watched “The Lion King.”
One Linden Elementary student exclaimed, “I’ve never been to a theater this big inside!”
Most of the students who attended Thursday’s production have the same background experience, and the same goes for some of their teachers Black Belt teachers.
“This is my first time to see a Broadway production,” said Evelyn Seale, an employee of the Hale County Board of Education. “This is an excellent opportunity for more rural students to see what’s out there.”
The students certainly seemed to appreciate the opportunity.
“It’s more than what I expected,” said Demetrius Edwards, a sixth grader from Linden Elementary. Edwards said he preferred the theatrical version of “The Lion King” because he could see everyone acting it out.
Students from Greensboro West High School’s creative writing class hoped the play would influence their artistic abilities.
“I liked ‘The Lion King’ when I was little, so I’m excited to see it now, acted out live,” said Beth Hazelrig before the show.
During intermission, Hazelrig’s said it had surpassed her expectations,especially the audience participation.
“Seeing people come out from beneath the seats made me feel like I was part of the play,” she said. “I love it!”
The creative writing students were not the only students who hoped the play would inspire their creativity.
“This is kind of an inspiration because I like to act,” said Davida Tubbs, a sixth grader and member of the Goal Team at Greensboro West Elementary. Zoshsha Hamilton, a fourth grade student from Greensboro West Elementary, agreed. Hamilton said she was looking forward to the “great music and talented people.”
All the students were full of inspiration during the play. Most sat at the edge of their seats, others stood and peeked over the edge of the balcony as actors invaded the lower-level audience, whirling life-like birds through the air.
Lamar’s brainchild, the idea for the trip came about from concern about poor education in Black Belt counties.
State officials, including Governors Bob Riley and Don Siegleman hadn’t done enough to fix the problem.
“I asked myself, ‘Whose responsibility is it?'” Lamar said.
Through prayer, he soon came up with a plan. Lamar thought visiting the Botanical Gardens and attending “The Lion King” at the BJCC would be a great treat for the Black Belt students-many of whom had never left their communities.
Thursday they got that chance and if the standing ovation they gave at the end of the show is any indication, they loved it.