Chris Waddington, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Set to make his Broadway debut this coming season, New Orleans actor Donald Jones Jr., spent much of his summer at home in New Orleans, directing kids at Crescent City Lights Youth Theater. For Jones, it was a chance to give back to the nonprofit organization that put him on the path to the Great White Way.
“The children in this program are a lot like me 15 years ago,” Jones said. “They come from all over the city and rehearse six-days-a-week, because they love the work and thrive under discipline. It’s a hard process, but for them it’s nice to be in an environment where everyone wants to be part of the team.”
Theater fans can see the team in action starting Friday (Aug. 16), the opening night for “Children’s Letters to God,” at NORD Ty Tracy Theatre in Gallier Hall. The musical, based on the best-selling book, features a cast of 15 boys and girls that range in age from 8 to 13.
Launched two decades ago, Crescent City Lights accepts students regardless of their ability to pay, said program founder and director Julie Condy. She moved the program into the NORD Theater in 2006.
“We’re looking for passion, not previous experience,” she said. “The program is a place that prepares children for life.”
Youth Theater alums can be found working on-air in local TV news, training as singers in top conservatories, on their high school debate teams, and in other settings that require poise and confidence.
Jones began rehearsing the current crop of students in July. He was still hard at it when we caught up with him at the theater this week.
Dressed in a polo shirt and sweat pants, the lithe, 26-year-old actor led the group in calisthenics and stretching exercises at the start of a 3 1/2 hour session – and no one complained that the air conditioning didn’t seem to be working in Gallier Hall.
“I tell them that the show will keep growing and changing even after opening night,” Jones said. “It’s one of the greatest things about live theater.”
Jones speaks with authority. A regional theater veteran since his college days, Jones also was part of the national touring company for “The Color Purple.” Trained as an actor and a singer, Jones further extended his range with two year as a member of Donald Byrd’s much-celebrated Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle. (His forthcoming role on Broadway will be announced nationally on August 26).
“When opportunities presented themselves, I was ready, “ Jones said. “I got an amazing grounding in dramatic technique, singing and theater etiquette from the children’s program. For one thing, it taught me how to interact with adults, and how to think professionally. Through this program, I ended up onstage with the New Orleans Opera, participated in an annual show at Jazz Fest, and lots more. That’s something I couldn’t have gotten from a school theater program, where the emphasis is usually on including everyone, even if their interest is limited.”
For Jones and other participants, the non-profit theater program also provided a peek into the lives of their peers.
“I was a middle class kid from Gentilly and came up through Catholic schools,” Jones said. “In the theater program I met kids of different color, gender and economic background. It’s still like that today: a place to discover that we belong together. ”
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