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The organizers of the second Chester African American Cultural Breakfast planned for this year’s event to focus on the arts, and if you attended the event, you know that the performances, some planned and some impromptu, that were on offer didn’t disappoint.
Emcee Minister Makeda Baker welcomed the breakfast attendees beginning, “This is the day that the Lord has made and we are rejoicing and being exceedingly glad in that knowledge.”
She greeted everyone with an ancient African greeting, continuing, “This breakfast is vitally important, it’s culturally important and it’s generationally important to know history, to celebrate history and to revel in history.”
Minister Marques Johnson began the veritable parade of artistic presentations by leading the audience in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem.
Chester High School students Jaila Young and Joseph Boyd stunned the crowd with their presentation of a lyrical dance set to “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles. The young people so impressed her, that actor dancer and choreographer Debbie Ayers Allen, the daughter of Chester’s own Vivian Ayers-Allen, who was attending the breakfast along with her mother, sister Phylicia Rashad and brother jazz musician Andrew “Tex” Allen, offered them both scholarships to her Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, on the spot.
Following the breakfast, Allen said she offered the scholarships to the students in the spirit of what the celebration of the breakfast was about.
“Black history is only significant if we are moving forward,” said the three-time Emmy winner for choreography, “and these young people are ready to move forward, and if I can be helpful, which I think I can, I’m going to bring them to Los Angeles in celebration of my mother and (choreographer and breakfast speaker, Fort Lawn native Dondraico Johnson). I love finding new talent all the time, so this gesture was in the spirit of what this community does,” she said. She added the young dancers also reminded her of herself at that age.
The audience was entertained with a step performance by the House Takuetsu Steppers. House Takuetsu is one of the “Houses” at Chester Middle School.
Minister Marques Johnson provided another inspirational song, “Oh, How I Love Jesus,” singing a wide range of notes and every one was pitch-perfect.
Then S.C. Hall of Fame Coach Bennie McMurray stepped to the podium to introduce one of the feature speakers, Dondraico Johnson, one of his former football players while he was coaching Lewisville High School.
“In the mid 90s when I had the privilege of coaching football at Lewisville High School, Dondraico was one of our players. He did a great job. As I was coming through Fort Lawn from Lancaster going to Chester, I would stop in Fort Lawn and my old blue pickup truck would be packed with players needing a ride to practice. Dondraico was a special player…I would always tell him ‘Dondraico, quit dancing and get up in the line!’ I’m glad that he didn’t listen to that one part of what I was telling him. You can see what dance has done for him and where it has lead him in this life.
“We had two or three special plays designed especially for Dondraico, 46 47 slam, 30 31 and 46 47. I know some of you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, but if my old team was in the building, they would know these were plays that we ran with Dondraico’s quick feet and elusiveness, he’d be in the secondary before the defense had time to tell what he was doing,” Coach McMurray said.
“Dondraico is a heavyweight in dance and choreography – he has had the chance to dance and tour with some of the heavyweights in the industry, TLC, NSYNC, J-Lo, Will Smith, Destiny’s Child, Michael Jackson, the list goes on and on,” he said.
“As his former coach, I am very proud of him. It goes to show you that we still live in a time when hard work, dedication and a desire to do well, you can do great things with your life. He is a living example of that.”
Johnson told the audience a bit about how he started in his career, getting his big break when he began his dance career, working with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, touring with her girl group BLAQUE and working with the likes of TLC and NSYNC.
Realizing that he needed to move to continue to pursue his dreams, Johnson moved to Los Angeles, Calif. where he got the opportunities to perform with such leading names as Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Janet Jackson Usher, Will Smith and the late Michael Jackson. From dancing, he graduated to choreography and has choreographed dance number for clients in several movies and award shows like the Grammy and the Academy Awards.
“One of the things that sticks out in my head is my coach in high school (Coach Bennie McMurray), saying ‘You better run that ball!’ so in my mind, the goal is all the way at the end, so this whole life is about masking it to the goal and you have to keep it going, no matter what. Everyone doesn’t want you to make it, but that 10-percent and the soul that’s inside of you have to run to the end of that goal – there’s no other way,” he said.
His said his mother would tell him,” Don’t worry about what anyone else says; you know what you have to do. You know what you want. If you want it, the goal’s that way so you have to go and get it. No one is going to give it to you; nothing’s free here, and no one will give you anything. You have to work for it.”
He said when he first started feeling something was missing from his life was when he expanded his career to choreography.
“You know when you’ve done something for so long, and you say ‘Something is missing. I want something else.’ You have to learn to adjust your life according to what you’re feeling, because you don’t want to be the person who is doing something forever and ever and the heart and the passion leaves you,” he said.
Speaking of choreography, he complimented the Chester Middle School House Takuetsu Steppers, saying for people to move together as they did was not easy and they did a great job.
He told the students they could follow their dreams the same way he did.
“I walked the same streets you guys walked and went to the same places you guys did,” he told the students.
Following the breakfast, Johnson said his story lets the youth know that “even though things seem to get hard, there’s always a light at the end and if they’re striving forward for things, they can achieve any goal. No matter what anyone tells you, if you put your mind to anything, it’s always achievable,” he said.
Before Ms. Ayers-Allen’s turn to speak, her son, jazz musician Andrew “Tex” Allen serenaded his mother with his version of “I See You Face Before Me.”
“By way of introduction, Allen said, “Sometimes life is music itself. We come up with songs and tunes, but they come from living.” Allen remembers coming to Chester when he was very young; his grandfather was a blacksmith in town.
“They were very serious in those days about the parents and raising kids, especially in the black community. You had to have a lot of discipline to survive in that period of time, space and becoming. My mother was a very serious woman, and my grandfather was like that,” he recalled.
Another of the highlights of the breakfast was when poet and cultural activist Ms. Vivian Ayers-Allen shared with the audience some of the details of how she came to write her poem “The Hawk,” which was honored three times by NASA.
To round out the art performances, Lewisville High School teacher Pete Stone’s students also shared some of their poems they wrote after being inspired by Vivian Ayers-Allen’s “The Hawk.”