Harris talks about experience at the Kennedy Center

By Page H. Gifford

For anyone who has a goal to work in theater, getting a foot in the door of the Kennedy Center is an honor. Jessica Harris did just that.

She has long had a passion and dedication for the theater arts. In her teens, she founded and was the artistic director of Empowered Players, a youth theater program that reaches hundreds of youth, particularly those who are disadvantaged and those living in rural areas where theater arts are not available.

Recognizing the need for the arts in rural areas, Harris has also given a TEDx Talk on “The Transformative Power of Theater in Rural Communities.” Along with her Master’s in education and psychology from the University of Virginia  and a B.A. in non-profit management and education also from U.Va., she continues her work in the arts, focusing on combining those elements of the arts, education, and social justice in helping with community connection.

In her latest foray into theater, Harris served as associate director and associate music director of “Beastgirl,” a world premiere for young adults. The production is based on the poem “Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths,” by New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo. “Beastgirl,” brings Acevedo’s poems to the theatrical stage.

“It is centered on telling the stories of three Dominican-American sisters in New York City. The sisters set out to perform a ritual in an effort to connect with their ancestors, their heritage, and each other, inviting the audience to join them and participate in this special moment. Throughout the performance, the sisters honor the Dominican myths, culture, and spirit that are woven into the fabric of who they are, and celebrate the complexity of their identities and experiences,” explained Harris,

As the  associate director, Harris helps with various aspects of the production and  supports the director, Rebecca Aparicio, as she brings the show to life. In her role as associate music director, she supports music director Amy Bormet by teaching the music to the actors and working on vocal arrangements.

She met Rebecca Aparicio in the summer of 2020 when Harris served as the assistant director and Aparicio was director of “In The Heights,” at Live Arts.

“She graciously asked me to join her team. She is a phenomenal artist and visionary, and I have learned so much under her leadership and am thankful for the chance to work with her again. Her passion for storytelling and using the arts as a platform for connection is incredible.”

    For most working at the prestigious Kennedy Center would be a dream come true and an experience like no other. Harris exhibits humility in her assessment of her experience.

She deeply examines the work itself and the message it sends to audiences and why it is so compelling.

“This experience of bringing a new work to the stage was truly a dream. I am blessed to have worked with such a wonderful team, and working at The Kennedy Center is an honor I don’t take for granted. Working on this project enabled me to draw on my theater, education, and music training in such a unique way. Our cast and creative team are also incredibly collaborative and tight-knit – which made the experience infinitely more meaningful.”

“The show itself, as well as the process of putting it together, speaks to the power of using the arts to build bridges, share meaningful stories, and inspire healing and more connected communities. What’s most exciting for me is that this show is designed for young audiences, and seeks to authentically and powerfully tell their stories – particularly these stories that often are undertold,” she said. “It does not shy away from challenging conversations, but also highlights the sisters’ joy and exuberance. Young people deserve the chance to see themselves represented on stage, and the beauty of this show is that it gives this opportunity to many folks in infinite ways.”

For Harris, it is a nice addition to a resume, but the experience is far more meaningful. It was the work itself that lit her creative spirit.

“I have learned so much from this process. One of the most exciting things about this piece is that it is a new work, and so we were constantly growing and innovating as a team to help bring this show to life,” she said. “I had a chance to learn from incredibly remarkable collaborators – writers, designers, producers, actors, and so on – who created a beautiful production. Getting to work with such a phenomenal group of artists challenged me to continue absorbing all I can from these individuals, and it was such a gift to have the chance to connect with such thoughtful art makers.”

   She talks about the relationships that performers have and how they connect with their audience. “At one of our opening shows, I saw the power of the arts and representation as I watched young audience members so excited by the performance, and by watching folks who looked like them perform on stage. These students were on the edge of their seats the whole show, danced along with the musical numbers, and participated enthusiastically. This moment was a beautiful reminder of why the arts are so important, especially for our young people, who deserve the chance to hear and see these stories and leave positively impacted by the experience. I will always remember the wonder on their faces as inspiration for why I engage in theater and education.”

Harris says she is enjoying this process and living in the moment. She adds that no matter what comes next, she will always treasure this opportunity.  

“I am especially excited to share what I’ve experienced with my Empowered Players students, in particular, as we continue building a compassionate and creative community here in Fluvanna.”

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