By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — Chrysti Chandler stood in the back of the room and looked on approvingly while her young dance troupe was performing at the April 4th Foundation’s 19th Annual Commemorative Awards at the Hilton Hotel in Memphis.
This was one of the dance troupe’s finest moments and more than entertainment filler on
the program that evening. It was symmetry and poetry in motion. Their precise moves were imbued with the spirit of the ancestors.
“I think they did a great job,” said Chandler, basing her opinion on the applause from the audience and numerous positive comments that were posted on social media platforms.
The venue was one of many for Chandler that showcases the talent and creativity of the members of the Young Actors Guild (YAG), a nonprofit dance and theatre academy she founded 28 years ago.
YAG Community Arts is located at 619 North Seventh St. in Memphis. There are two satellite locations: 1926 First Commercial Dr. N. in Southaven, Miss., and 1391 Ferguson St., also in Memphis.
YAG has performed at hundreds of venues in the Mid-South and before prominent individuals since its inception. The impact that YAG has had in the community has touched over 10,000 youth, according to the group’s website.
In 2021, Chandler will be preparing to move YAG’s complete operation into the old Memphis Fire Station No. 22 at Lamar and Pendleton after the building is converted into studio and dance spaces.
The building will be christened the Harriet Performing Arts for Children.
“It will be named after Harriet Tubman (the abolitionist who freed more than 300 slaves),” said Chandler. “We’re planning to break ground in six months and complete it in the next two years.”
There will be space for artists to practice their dance moves and a lobby as well. “I don’t know the seating capacity right now,” she said, adding: “We will do workshops so they (youth) can do their own work on stage.”
After the “Harriet” is up and fully operational, Chandler plans to teach youth to develop, direct and produce their original plays. She wants them to learn the full gamut of production.
“Our hope is to bring in tourists so they can see the talent that we have in Memphis,” she said. “We will have other ongoing productions, but this will be coming from Memphis’ own playwrights.”
If the “pieces” are good enough, Chandler plans to enter them into festivals. She is confident that her group can measure up in talent and creativity, no matter the age bracket.
Alexandria Edwards, for example, is proof that Chandler’s performing arts group can move up to the next level. The 15-year-old breezed through the monologue at the awards program with passion and emotional fervor before the entire group started moving to the music and rhythm of gospel artist Kurt Carr’s “For Every Mountain.”
Alexandria is one of 150 kids that Chandler is training at the dance and theatre academy. “They come from everywhere,” she said, even as far away as Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta, when the summer camps convene.
Three of her students, she pointed out, auditioned in California and were accepted into the Debbie Allen Dance Academy Summer Intensive in Atlanta. Others have gone on to realize varying degrees of success.
In 2006, Gideon McKinney made it as a semi-finalist in Season 5 of “American Idol” before he was eliminated. In 2013, Kris Thomas, also a singing phenom, competed in Season 4 of “The Voice.” And in 2018, Gideon’s younger sister, Evvie McKinney, won the first season of “The Four: Battle for Stardom.”
“I trained them all,” said Chandler, who performed her first play, “Little Red Riding Hood,” when she was just 5 years old in the back yard of her mother’s home in South Memphis.
She converted the patio into a stage. The audience, she said, filled up the backyard. Many of them arrived from Glenview, Castalia and other neighborhoods in South Memphis. Her creativity was just beginning to blossom at that tinder age.
“The arts kept me alive,” she said. “That was my escape.”
Chandler’s group is scheduled to perform a tribute to Michael Jackson, “To Michael With Love,” on May 4, 6 p.m., at the University of Memphis Rose Theatre. This is another opportunity for them to show their teacher and trainer that they are ready for the big stage.
For more information about the Young Actors Guild, call 901-240-2103 or 662-536-6122. A capital campaign is underway to help transform the firehouse into the Harriet Performing Arts for Children. Contact Sabrina Norwood at 901-240-2103 for details.