Sumner High School Winter Showcase finale

In the spring of 2021, CAM joined a consortium of St. Louis arts organizations to develop and put into practice a multi-tiered art curriculum for Sumner High School. This effort came in response to the St. Louis Board of Education’s planned closing of Sumner, the school slated for elimination due to decades of declining enrollment. The Board reversed itself, however, when presented with a plan from community groups, the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, Sumner alumni, as well as the unprecedented commitment of more than thirty local arts organizations to work with the school to introduce a robust arts program. 

Sumner’s historic status as the first high school for African Americans west of the Mississippi, opened in 1875, and its fabled alumni, including Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry, Grace Bumbry, Dick Gregory, and Tina Turner, was a factor in the positive response of many of St. Louis’s arts leaders. But it was Sumner’s future that brought people together. The equation for success is this: the new arts “pathways” program will attract more students and families to the school, with the goal of a 30-percent increase in enrollment over the next three years.  

In early December, Sumner’s Winter Showcase was the first public presentation of those four pathways, brought together in one major production. Dance, drama, music, and visual art were woven into the telling of a story, Sumner’s story, created by the students with assists from teaching artists associated with the Arts Partners,* musicians from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, a script from alumnus Angelo Shaw, and many others who lent a hand.

In Sumner’s expansive auditorium, the show began with the “Ode to Joy,” played by three students on keyboards and a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra quintet. What followed was a combination variety show and Gesamtkunstwerk—a total-art narrative about Sumner—which included choral selections, short skits, cheerleaders, a musical excerpt from A Charlie Brown Christmas, and a recording of Drake. On an upstage screen, images created by students participating in the visual arts pathway—led by teaching artists from Craft Alliance and CAM—were projected, offering mood and atmosphere. 

The show’s dramatic centerpiece featured a semi-circle of black-clad performers expressing the multitude of feelings the past year had produced. Sometimes individual actors played specific roles, sometimes they spoke together like a Greek chorus lending commentary to the scenes. A single actor moved from the chorus and took center stage. Behind him, black-and-white images of Dick Gregory, Tina Turner, Billy Davis Jr. of the Fifth Dimension, basketball great Marshall Rogers, glowed like benevolent specters. The stage darkened as the young man broke it all down—the anguish, the aspirations, the defiance. “They must have forgot the heart of Sumner.” He raised his fist in the air and his fellow actors rose, each with a fist in the air. “Worth Fighting For” became the chant. The audience rose, fists in the air. “Worth Fighting For!”

* From the Winter Showcase program: Dance – Robert Crenshaw & 314 Movement Lab; Drama – Shakespeare Festival St. Louis & The Black Rep; Music – Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Pianos for People, STAGES St. Louis, & the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra; Visual Art – Craft Alliance & CAM.

Eddie Silva