Cecilia Nadal, the founder and executive director of Gitana Productions, remembers the first time she met Faraja Lungele, a 14-year-old refugee who came to the United States from Kenya after fleeing the Congo. Lungele would repeatedly peek into rehearsals in the basement of St. Louis Public Library’s Carpenter branch in south St. Louis and quickly return upstairs, without saying a word.
After three or four sightings, Nadal pulled Lungele aside, they talked, and she found out that Lungele loved to sing and dance.
It was a perfect fit: Gitana Productions is a local nonprofit that advocates healing through the arts and was preparing for a show entitled “Living the Dream.” In it, students, aged 7-17 from diverse backgrounds use four one-act plays, song, dance and slam poetry to explore issues facing young people today—particularly issues facing young immigrant children.
“Living the Dream” is part of a broader program, Global Education through the Arts, in the non-profit that seeks to pair African-American and immigrant children who live in the same neighborhoods together when there are few other avenues to cross those cultural barriers.
Nadal asked Lungele to join the group but she repeatedly declined.
“I said ‘Why don’t you join the program?’” Nadal told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. “She wouldn’t tell me why she wouldn’t join but finally I learned that she lives in an area where there is a lot of shooting and other things going on and her father was worried about her ability to walk to the library and get back at night.”
The group was able to make arrangements to take her home and Nadal said “she had the biggest smile on her face.” Above that, Lungele came out with the fact she could dance and sing in four languages and wanted to act.
“She had all these talents but they would not have emerged had there not been that engagement and conversation about removing barriers for her to do what her heart wants to do,” said Nadal.
To Lungele, “Living the Dream” means “everything.”
“When I came to ‘Living the Dream,’ I find new friends, new people who did change my life like Ms. Cecilia,” Lungele said. “I wanted to achieve my goals and now I know I can achieve it with 'Living the Dream.’”
While on “St. Louis on the Air,” Lungele shared a song in Swahili, which she dedicated to her mother.
Lungele had tears in her eyes after singing, saying that she misses her mother.
“I know what Faraja is feeling,” Nadal said. “Those words take her back home, they take her back to her mother, times with her friends at her school. She’s still making the transition and when we go to song, we go to heart and we go to memory. I think it took her back to where she is from and that is what she is missing.”
Intercultural experiences like these are what Gitana Productions is all about. Joining Lungele and Nadal in-studio to talk about “Living the Dream” were Daniel Johnson, a graduate of the non-profit’s Global Education through the Arts Program and actor in “Living the Dream,” and Sue Cooper, the mother of a Gitana participant and actor.
“Growing up in St. Louis, you see a lot of violence in the streets and communities, so to have a play that targets those issues, it makes you feel good inside,” said Johnson. “It is helping me because it is pointing out things in the community that you may just pass over. In one of the scenes, there is a guy who is getting bullied because he is new to the country. It makes you look at your own life and make changes.”
Listen to more insights about the production and how young people make intercultural connections through the non-profit here:
What: "Living the Dream"
When: Saturday, March 19 at 1:00 p.m.
Where: St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center, 3847 Enright Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108
There are several more performances of “Living the Dream,” on March 23, March 26, March 30 and April 2. See the Gitana Productions website for more information.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.