A Visit with Daniel Jenkins
Something extraordinary happened today and in my excitement I wanted to call my mom to tell her all about it. Sadly, I knew I couldn't, but I could imagine the conversation. She would understand what it means to me to have Daniel Jenkins, the original Huck Finn in Big River, ask me to sing with him.
It all happened during his visit to my kindergarten classroom as a guest artist with Broadway Books First Class. The fact that Daniel Jenkins was even visiting was enough to set my pulse racing. It's because some of us forge deep connections to certain Broadway shows. We've played the album nonstop, sang every song, know every lyric, sat in the audience to watch it more than once, and bought tickets for our family and friends so they could share our enthusiasm.
Big River was one of those shows for me and Daniel Jenkins was my Huck. His voice, his energy, his twang, his humor, and his overall performance were something I dreamed of emulating.
There have been other favorite shows and other guest artists who've visited with the program that've had me walking on air. There was Alison Fraser (Romance/Romance and The Secret Garden), Douglas Sills (The Scarlet Pimpernel), David Staller (Evita), Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder), Kecia Lewis (Once on This Island), Stockard Channing (Grease), and Annie Golden (Hair), but never has one of these incredible performers asked me to duet with them. It was nothing I ever considered doing either.
Today, Daniel Jenkins surprised me after a student asked, "Can you sing for us?" He turned to me and told me to move my chair a little closer to him. He said I would be singing with him. He chose "Worlds Apart" from Big River. As I scooted closer, I thought I heard him whisper to the ASL interpreter, Lynnette Taylor, "He can sing, right?"
He began, "I see the same stars through my window..." and then I joined him. He was also signing as he sang, so I locked eyes with him and we told the story of two people finding a connection despite their differences. I wasn't sure how I was doing, but it didn't really matter. I was sharing a moment of importance (to me) that came about because of an act of kindness from someone I have admired for over 30 years. When we finished, I gave him a hug, as the children clapped and cheered, and then I dramatically fell off my chair in disbelief at what had just occurred.
Daniel's visit this week seemed to have even more weight to it because entering a school these days is an act of courage. The horrific murders of 2 teachers and 19 children in a fourth-grade classroom in Texas has left me despondent. The anguish of the parents and families of the victims hurts my soul. In this fragile state, Daniel Jenkins offered up some joy, a little island to find peace within a wild, untamed ocean. His book selection seemed timely as well. Although, a children's book promoting the themes of friendship and acceptance is always a strong selection.
Daniel chose to read the book Big Al by Andrew Clements and Yoshi. It tells the story of a large, scary looking fish who is lonely because his appearance frightens the other fish. Big Al tries everything to hide parts of himself and alter his looks, but nothing works. It isn't until all of the little fish are caught in a fisherman's net and Big Al saves the day that they all realize he is more than meets the eye. It is a heartwarming tale with beautiful illustrations.
As Daniel read, I looked around the classroom to witness how the story was registering with the children. This energetic bunch was suddenly quiet. All eyes on Daniel and ASL interpreter, Lynnette Taylor, in an impressive show of what can only be called, "rapt attention."
It dawned on me that this visit was full of "big" moments - both literal and figurative. Here was a guest artist with Broadway credits in Big River (the original production in 1985 and the Deaf West revival in 2003) and Big (in 1996, based on the popular Tom Hanks movie). He read a children's book called Big Al, gave me a very big moment (see above), and shared some truly big life lessons in his responses to the children's questions.
When asked why he wanted to be on Broadway, he responded by telling us about the joys and advantages of playing with people who help you grow. The lesson was one that applies to many situations, but his point was that surrounding yourself with others who are passionate about what they are doing presents opportunities for us to learn and pushes us to improve. Indeed!
We wrapped up the Q&A and Daniel put his considerable ASL and fingerspelling skills to use by signing books for all of the students. With messages of "Peace" he engaged with each child, giving them a moment to be seen and feel valued.
A writer from Broadway World was supposed to attend this guest artist visit for an article about the program. He had to cancel at the last minute and I am sorry he missed a golden opportunity to put some positivity into our grieving country. I'm sorry my mom isn't alive to pick up the phone so I can tell her all about it. A friend told me she's an angel looking out for me now. If that's the case, she did some sweet work with this visit.
We all lift our hands in gratitude to applaud Daniel Jenkins - thank you!
Broadway Books First Class