By Len Lear and Lou Mancinelli
Tamara Anderson of Mt. Airy, a singer, actress, educator and author, was given a grant of $1,844.49 last year from the Leeway Foundation to “create a short play/skit that will serve as a platform for dropout prevention and shine a light on the dire need for sustainable programs for individuals who self-select to leave or are pushed out of school.”
Almost one-fifth of Philadelphia’s adult residents have yet to finish high school or equivalent programs, according to a 2011 report by the Pew Charitable Trust. In a city of 1.5 million, where 60 percent of the population (900,000) is between the ages of 20 and 65, that means about 180,000 are lacking a high school degree.
(The Leeway Foundation, with headquarters at 1315 Walnut St., distributes grants yearly to women and transgender artists “who use a multiplicity of forms of creative expression to effect social change … and to bring awareness about unpopular issues … ”)
With her group “Voices,” actress, educator, singer and author of a recent novel “The Soul of a Chanteuse,” Anderson, 38, works to provide adults younger than 25 who lack high school diplomas a chance to improve their situation.
She collected narratives through a series of interviews and writing workshops with students who are high school dropouts and adjudicated youth from E3 Centers at 1231 North Broad St. and at 2nd and Girard Avenue and Gabe Hall, a residential behavioral health facility for boys aged 13 – 18 in Audubon, PA.
The collected material was used to develop a script that will be performed live for middle school, high school and adult audiences to give an honest portrayal of this population, and to allow their stories to be heard. Called the “Voices Project,” Anderson’s play has been performed once so far — at St Michael’s Lutheran Church, 6671 Germantown Ave. on June 6 of this year.
“Just recently something happened that made me want to finish my GED,” wrote J.R., one of the young men who attend her writing workshops. “My wife was murdered, and she was expecting our first child. I now take care of her son from an earlier relationship ‘cause his father ain’t really doing s—-. When I finish, I want to join the army.”
J.R. is one of the many adults below 25 Anderson strives to assist and guide. She has experienced reform in urban schools firsthand. When she taught in Chicago public schools after graduating from college, the superintendent of schools was Paul Vallas, a man who would later become Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District.
“I’ve always worked at schools nobody wanted to work at,” she said.
After working in a blighted Chicago public school for three years, Anderson wrote a grant that enabled the school to be awarded a $2.5 million grant from the Goodman Theatre, Chicago’s award-winning regional theater. Students at the school went from giving performances once a year to performing once a month.
Anderson, who appeared in the movie “Barbershop 2” and is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, moved to Philadelphia in 2006. Since 2001, she had lived in New York, where she performed in numerous roles in “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Cinderella,” etc. In 2004, she produced “Duplex,” a one-person cabaret, but in 2006 she moved out of New York because of a role she got in a play called “Yellowman” in Providence, Rhode Island.
Later she moved to Mt. Airy, where she taught for a year at the New Media Charter School, a technology-oriented school, before teaching a year for the Philadelphia School District. In 2009, she left the district to focus more on her work with dropout students and Della T Solutions, a professional writing business.
Anderson graduated in 1996 from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana with a Bachelors in Secondary Education (Theater minor and English major). She also attended Millikin University for two years as a Musical Theater major, and she has a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University.
She was recently featured in a Food & Drug Administration industrial spot, and her voice was featured on an FDA voice over/song. This fall she will be playing Motormouth Maybelle in “Hairspray” at Media Theatre, but she cannot pull herself away from teaching. “Illiteracy has a current and expected death toll,” she has written. “This is a metaphorical death, the inability to live life to the fullest because your world is devoid of language and knowledge.”
For more information about Anderson’s play: firstname.lastname@example.org or 267-283-8273. It is appropriate for middle school to adults.