Broadway Books First Class guest artist Oneika Phillips has an indomitable spirit. Her energy and light heralded her arrival and had every head turning when she entered the classroom. From the start we all knew this was going to be an inspiring visit. How can anyone resist Oneika's infectious smile and genuine, loving spirit? Hers is a story of challenges, tenacity, belief, and ultimately, triumph. It is one we both had to share with the children because we wanted to teach them that attitude is key.
We may not always have control over our circumstances, but we do have the power to balance light with the darkness. It is a lesson that follows a complicated, emotional path, which begins by facing our fears.
We all get scared sometimes. Terrors can come in irresistible packages with eye-catching ribbons that demand our attention. These nightmares are the kind that elicit bloodcurdling screams followed by a rush of adrenaline and a pounding heart. They can be found in the pages of the cautionary tales shared by former guest artist, Aaron Mark. Fortunately, this type of terror is usually fleeting. We find our way out of the haunted house, we wake up from the nightmare, the movie ends, or, like me, realize the snake your twin brother put on your pillow is fake. We return to functioning as normal within a relatively short period of time.
However, there are other frights. Ones that run deeper. Ones that linger and slowly eat away at our edges. They instill in us a sense of dread, bringing pangs of despair and bouts of worry, They have the ability to cripple us. These are the challenges. They can either crush us or they can show us we are stronger than we realized.
Oneika Phillips guided the children down the uncertain passageway of the quieter fright during her visit. She led our discussion with compassion, giggles, and a few playful dance moves.
Here's Oneika's story and how I discovered the perfect children's book to help tell it.
Oneika's dance training, undeniable talent, and smooth moves landed her the plum role of Anita in the 50th Anniversary International Tour of Jerome Robbin's West Side Story. She is an incredibly strong, flexible dancer, but unfortunately not impervious to injury. One day during rehearsal she executed a tricky dance move that left her with a fractured back.
Suddenly, all that she worked for was in jeopardy. Decisions had to be made to heal her body. The physical road back to where she was before all this happened is just one side of the story. There was also the exhausting, frightening, emotional toll. The two walk hand-in-hand, merging at the center of it all to determine how we come through a crisis.
Oneika fought her way back and, not only maintained, but soared! She most recently shined as a denizen of Bikini Bottom in the smash Broadway musical SpongeBob SquarePants.
I struggled to find the perfect book to frame her story the first time she visited in 2016. The book I found - Franklin Goes to the Hospital by Paulette Bourgeois - contained a wonderful message about bravery, but didn't quite capture the nuances of rebuilding one's life after a traumatic incident.
Then, one afternoon I was in the children's book section of New York's famous Strand bookstore with my friend Esther when I came across After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat. It stopped me in my tracks. Here was a powerful picture book about the debilitating aftermath of an injury. How it can stop us from doing the things we love because we are frightened of getting hurt again. A book about the emotional scars left behind after the body heals. Using simple text and outstanding illustrations Dan Santat gets the reader inside the noggin' of a trepidatious Humpty Dumpty. It is at once instantly relatable and finessed to explore the deeper issues underpinning fear. And children follow Humpty Dumpty through the pain until he ultimately learns to soar (figuratively and literally).
That last bit was the clincher for me. For although I knew that Humpty Dumpty was an egg, I never imagined what was inside him. To realize - through the author's eyes - that he was always an egg on his way to BECOMING something new blew my mind. Did you ever think about that? What a great, new perspective on a nursery rhyme I've known since childhood. It was exactly the children's book we needed to tell Oneika's story.
There comes a time to celebrate moving forward. After facing fear with bravery and navigating through challenges, the relief of pushing past it all deserves an outpouring of happy. We did just that in a language Oneika knows well - dance!
Oneika taught us the Super Sea Star Savior choreography from SpongeBob SquarePants (also referred to as the Sardine Dance). The exuberant cascade of joyful energy swept us all away. Catch a glimpse by clicking this link.
In fact, SpongeBob proved to be a very big draw for the students. They couldn't help but share their encyclopedic knowledge of the characters and storylines. Oneika and I were talking about organizing a trip for the children to see her perform in the show - as Jonathan Freeman did with ALADDIN - but the show was forced to close because of scheduled renovations to the historic Palace Theatre.
Oneika shared some bright, colorful fan art of her character, "Punk Fish", with her neon green mohawk (hard to miss!). She traveled a long path from Grenada to Broadway. Her determination, work ethic, dedication, and pure joy for dance pulled her through the difficult times.
It also taught the children an important lesson about the power of the mind to heal. Optimism and a can-do spirit is never to be underestimated.
Before we said goodbye Oneika spent a little time with each child. She wrote personalized messages in their books (made through donations for this project on DonorsChoose.org. You can follow this link to support future projects).
Be sure to keep an eye out for Oneika's next project. You can bet I'll be there cheering her on!
Broadway Books First Class