“Voices of Carmen” is a program of Dance & Bmore, a program for adolescents 14-21 years of age. It will be presented at the Baltimore School for the Arts, 712 Cathedral Street, Baltimore, MD 21201 on July 30 and 31, and Aug. 1 at 6:30 PM and on Aug. 2 at 7 PM. It will also be live-streamed at Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Aug. 3 at 6 PM.
“Voices of Carmen” is a musical adaptation of the opera “Carmen” set in a High School. This musical brings a contemporary spin to this iconic story that’s filled with fresh yet familiar renditions of George Bizet’s compositions, as well as a dozen original songs, from Pop to Hip Hop and R&B, written and arranged by CJay and Winston Philip. This vibrantly staged and choreographed piece examines escalating conflict among young people. This production hopes to serve as a catalyst for community dialogue and improved emotional health and awareness while providing resources for conflict resolution.
“Voices of Carmen” is a creative collaboration between youth and adults. Our company cast, crew, and musicians are all 14-21 years old and collaborate with our staff and creative team members. It is also a youth violence prevention program. We tackle difficult issues in our program including dating violence and conflict resolution. During our performances, there are moments where the audience will participate in discussions based on these themes. “Voices of Carmen” is a training ground for young artists. Our program provides professional development workshops in human resources, financial literacy, and career development in the arts. It also acts as a youth leadership program. Our Director and creative team are advised by a Carmen Youth Council of young people. The Carmen Youth Council guides the direction of the program including production content and visual elements.
CJay Philip is Artistic Director of Dance & Bmore, a dynamic Baltimore based ensemble with a unique fusion of movement, original music and spoken word. CJay is the host and producer of Dance & Bmore Live, an online dance program for families. She can also be seen on CW Baltimore and FOX 45 as a spokesperson promoting family wellness and reading. Before moving to Baltimore, CJay had a successful Broadway career appearing in the Broadway productions of “Big the Musical,” “Street Corner Symphony” and “Hairspray.” She’s toured in “Dreamgirls” and the National Broadway production of “Legally Blonde.”
Her company Dance & Bmore has designed award-winning community programs that serve youth and families as well as elders through the arts. She is a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, a Robert W. Deutsch Fellow, the recipient of a Baker Artist b grant, a Baltimore Social Innovators award, a Dance Break NYC Award, and the 2018 Champion of Courage award.
I had a chance to interview Ms. Philips and find out more about her and “Voices of Carmen.”
- What inspired you to choose “Carmen” for your adaptation rather than other operas?
My brother and I saw a contemporary version of “Carmen” which was not very well done, but we thought the idea was pretty good. Later when he was asked to produce a contemporary theater piece for youth in Zurich Switzerland, he suggested I collaborate with him on a new “Carmen.” After doing some research, I found the opera to have fascinating inner personal struggles that held my attention and would make great theater. So, I started writing the script.
- What do you enjoy doing more, performing, writing, directing or doing choreography and why?
I am very fortunate to have so many creative outlets, but I have to say directing is my favorite because it incorporates the range of my creative capacity in the one role. I cannot direct without my sense of movement and musicality or my understanding of the actor’s perspective or the writer’s voice. Directing for me is an accumulation of creative thinking I find a lot of joy in.
- How do you think you made “Voices of Carmen” relevant to your performers and their audience?
The fact that young people took part in the show’s design is what makes “Voices of Carmen” relevant to young performers and audiences. The Baltimore production began its development in June 2018 with a Carmen Youth Council who help to consult and advise on everything from the music, to themes within the piece, and our community conversations.
- I assume you enjoy working with youthful performers. Do you adjust your choreography and directing to work with these young people, or do you use the same techniques you would use with a cast primarily of people over 21?
My approach to directing is based on an actor’s experience as opposed to their age. I sometimes work with adults who are novices and kids who are pros. In the case of “Voices of Carmen,” we have a diverse range of experience. I work with all of our performers on developing a strong back-story for their characters that will inform the choices they’ll make in that role. I also get them to create relationships between their characters so the audience experiences a cohesive community.
- How will you, personally, judge the production to be successful?
This production is already a success on so many levels. A year ago, I only dreamed of holding city-wide auditions and finding talent from every corner of Baltimore and now we’ve done just that. I also imagined a partnership with Baltimore YouthWorks which would allow this program to be a Summer job for our city kids and hoped that the philanthropic community would step up to cover the salaries for the rest of our cast not registered with YouthWorks, and they are. Slowly but surely the sponsors are reaching out and coming to the table. I also fantasized about bringing our young people to the DC Black Theater Festival and the Kennedy Center and both of those performances are now a reality. I wanted to develop partnerships with organizations like Restorative Response Baltimore to help educate and facilitate discussions around conflict resolution, and they are on board and scheduled to facilitate our July 24th community performance at the Waxter Senior Center. I wanted to bring our young people out into the community to have discussions around emotional health and de-escalation, and we have three stops on our community tour including the Penn North Enoch Pratt Library. And lastly, I wanted to see young people in other cities have an opportunity to take on this story and bring their talent and voices to create fresh new productions of “Voices of Carmen,” and this Fall we’ll do just that with youth in Atlanta as part of the Atlanta Black Theater Festival. I am living my dreams with this production which is clearly bigger than me. Success would be a continuation of the great art, conversations and young change-makers this show can produce not only in Baltimore but nationally and globally as we license “Voices of Carmen” worldwide.