“My first interaction with history, it was that African-Americans were slaves,” Jenkins tells the students. “My teacher was teaching science, teaching math — I was so into it. Then we got to history. When we started talking about Africans being slaves and slave culture, the rapings, it made it less interesting to me.”
Jenkins cites his initial disinterest with the subject as the reason for wanting to tell stories that would have appealed to him at a young age.
“A lot of times, what we’re really trying to do is connect with people,” he says. “We want something to connect with us and see ourselves inside our stories.”
The five-time Grammy nominee and his partners at the Adrienne Arsht Center — which commissioned the epic hip-hop musical Henry Box Brown premiering Thursday, January 10 — want students to know the main character's story. That's why Jenkins, who stars in the production, is visiting the Young Men’s Preparatory Academy. He’s conducting a workshop to give students some background knowledge about Brown and the customs of that era.
“In those times, imagine you saw a girl you liked, but if you wanted to ask her out, you needed to speak to the man who owned her,” Jenkins says, describing the process Brown endured by having to pay his wife’s owner to prevent her from being sold to another family. “So he would say, ‘You want to see her? Give me 50 bucks.’”
In addition to teaching the history lesson, Jenkins and the Arsht Center wanted to use the workshop as a springboard to show students the empowering nature of storytelling. This part of the workshop is inspired by Brown's writing his own biography, a rarity during a time when reading and writing were dangerous skills for an African-American to exhibit.
“This workshop is a participatory piece about creating your own narrative,” says Jairo Ontiveros, assistant vice president of education and community engagement at the Arsht Center. “We want these students to know that you’re the champion of your own journey.”
The Arsht Center is providing free transportation and tickets for students to attend the show. Ontiveros says it’s the Arsht’s mission to make the arts more accessible to all members of the community, including young people.
One of the storytelling exercises Jenkins does with students is retelling a section of Brown’s life using a 16-bar rap verse. One of the students, ninth-grader Jordan Jackson, stands before the class to share his work:
No family, no hope
No one to give me soap.
Jenkins, impressed, nods along. Jackson finishes:
I’ll find my true love,
Until that day
I’ll keep working with these gloves.
Henry Box Brown. 11 a.m. Thursday, January 10, and select times through Saturday, January 12, at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $6 to $25; students receive free admission.