Can the Arts Get Students to College? All Black High School Cast Says Yes in ‘Purple Dreams’ Documentary

Producer Robin Grey talks about her new film and how the arts motivate students to seek post-secondary degrees.

Northwest students perform the first all black high school musical of "The Color Purple." From left to right: Mekhai Lee, Northwest teacher and director Corey Mitchell, Phillip Johnson, Keston Steele, Britany Bowens, Danielle Hopkins.

Northwest students perform the first all black high school musical of “The Color Purple.” From left to right: Mekhai Lee, Northwest teacher and director Corey Mitchell, Phillip Johnson, Keston Steele, Britany Bowens, Danielle Hopkins.

When Northwest School of the Arts teacher Corey Mitchell approached film producer Robin Grey with an idea for a documentary three years ago, Grey thought, “This is just the kind of thing that we’re always interested in.”

The documentary, “Purple Dreams,” follows Mitchell’s students as they create the first all black high school production of “The Color Purple,” while balancing their schoolwork and often-stressful home lives. The story culminates with an invitation to perform the musical at the International Thespian Festival (ITF) in Nebraska, an honor Northwest had not received in 35 years. At the end of the film, three of the leading cast members receive college scholarships.

Related: Theater helps English learners master Common Core: But can it close the achievement gap?

College is not a given for many Northwest students. According to principal Melody Sears, the arts magnet school has a minority enrollment of 63 percent, and 46 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. But, last year Northwest’s graduation rate was 96 percent, with 85 percent of students going on to receive post-secondary degrees. And of the 72 students who participated in “The Color Purple,” five are still in high school, seven changed schools, nine are not enrolled in a higher learning program and 51 students are currently enrolled in a two or four-year degree program.

Northwest operates on the idea that arts education helps keep students in school and gets them to college. Grey says the film is evidence of this, and she hopes it will encourage school administrators to reinstate or revitalize their arts programs. After three years and 170 hours of footage, Grey and her business partner Joanne Hock hope the film will come out this fall.

Related: Academics forced to prove their worth

The Hechinger Report spoke with Grey about “Purple Dreams” and the connection between the arts and college attendance. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Question: How was theater a vehicle to higher education for these students?

Answer: The main thing I think [theater] does is open the mind. If you’re sitting in a class at a desk, and you don’t have reason to believe that first of all, you could afford college, and then what will I do with college? Kids like me don’t go to college. It opens their eyes to possibilities and [you] see a long term. And having people work one-on-one with you. In a theater program, it’s not just [the director] dealing with you, it’s the teacher that does the costuming and wardrobe, and it’s the ones that are doing the sets. And what I see from these teachers that is different from a regular classroom teacher, they’re mentoring constantly. They’re teaching the kids about life after school, and I think that’s a big difference too. It’s talking to them about their circumstance and then showing them they’re not their circumstance. So many of the kids have said, if not for this, we don’t know where we would have been. We wouldn’t have stayed in school. So kids that would not have gone to college are now in college because of the arts.

Related: Will ‘creative’ and ‘hands on’ summer school foster a love of learning?

Purple Dreams Trailer from GreyHawk Films on Vimeo.

How did you see the students transform over the course of the play? Or did they?

Oh yea, they did. These kids are inspirational. The biggest one to me was Brittany. She was a young woman who came into the school as a 10th grader; she should have been a 12th grader. Nobody knew if the school district would let her stay.She was homeless for a period of time. She lived in a motel. She never said hello to me. Her head was always down. As things moved on and you saw that she realized, I’m good at what I do. And people recognize that I’m a good person, not just a good actress. And you just saw slowly she started lifting her eyes. We just saw her blossom. That is amazing to me to see that transformation in a kid who I wouldn’t have expected to graduate high school, much less have a scholarship to college. And I have spoken to her college professor, and he said she’s amazing.

Do you think these students succeeded because they already wanted to be involved in theater, or could students without a passion for the arts also benefit from a program like this?

I don’t know if [theater] would help kids that don’t have a talent.Personally, I think that everybody is creative. And that your creativity leaves if you don’t use it. So I think arts classes are so important throughout school because everybody can further their creativity, and our global world needs that creative thinking. So even if you don’t have the talent that these specific kids have, you have talents, and you have to think creatively to make it in any part of business. You can use arts the rest of your life, you can be creative the rest of your life. It’s a skill that will always apply.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Arianna Skibell

Arianna Skibell writes for The Hechinger Report. Before joining Hechinger, she covered health, education, race and criminal/social justice while earning her masters degree at Columbia Journalism School. Her work has appeared in Salon, NY City Lens and Uptown Radio. Arianna graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA in Psychology and Linguistics from Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., where she also grew up. While at Emory, she served as the Editor in Chief of the student newspaper, The Emory Wheel. In kindergarten, Arianna received the Bright Ideas Award, and she has been thinking ever since.