Kirsten Harrell, seen here practicing her dance moves, is an 18-year-old Middle College High School student in Memphis and a company YAG dancer. Photos by Wiley Henry

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — The Harriet Performing Arts Center is home to the Young Actors Guild (YAG) of Memphis. On Feb. 19, the day YAG was born 32 years ago, Chrysti Chandler will celebrate the art center’s second grand opening at 3 p.m.

Located at 2788 Lamar Ave. and Pendleton Street in the historic Orange Mound/Bethel Grove community, this grand opening completes the second round of renovations to the Harriet, which had been an old vacant fire station that Chandler purchased in 2019 from the City of Memphis for $1. 

“All we had to do was renovate it,” she said. 

Chandler contacted three architectural firms to convert the 4000 sq ft. Fire Station No. 22 into multi-purpose studio spaces for three-to 18-year-olds to practice their craft: performing arts, creative arts, theatre, writing, etc.

They all turned her down, she said. “They didn’t think we had the money – which we didn’t.” After running into one of the principles at Self+Tucker Architects, the firm offered to help. 

“We knew we were going to persevere,” she said.

Chandler raised more than $200,000 from the sale of hotdogs, hamburgers, and popcorn at FedExForum to renovate the fire station’s interior first. “We did carwashes and the parents donated too,” she said.

The second phase – the facade – “was completed this week,” said Chandler, and cost around $200,000 as well. Landscaping, lights, a freedom path walk, and signage, which Self+Tucker is designing, will complete the third and final phase sometime in January 2024. 

Although the arts center is named after Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who freed dozens of slaves via the Underground Railroad, Chandler was inspired to open the Harriet after visiting the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, Calif. 

“We took students there on a college tour in 2018,” she said. “When we drove up, we were right in the ’hood just like we’re in the ’hood in Orange Mound. Those kids that came to her studio were so happy.”

Chandler was confident she could do the same thing in Orange Mound, where she grew up, that Allen had done in California. When she returned to Memphis, she began the arduous work of bringing the Harriet to life.

Since 1991, the year Chandler founded YAG, countless students practiced each Saturday and sometimes on Sunday to hone their talent, to sharpen their skills. The youth group has flourished since then, even without a facility to call their own.

The LeMoyne-Owen College Student Center Little Theater was YAG’s first location. There are two satellite locations: one at 619 North Seventh St. and the other at 1926 First Commercial Dr. N. in Southaven, Miss.

Students come from as far away as Mississippi and Arkansas and other places outside of Memphis to be a part of YAG. Their parents and grandparents lend a helping hand as well, Chandler said. 

Josie Aldridge, a 13-year-old eighth-grade student from Olive Branch, Miss., performs spoken word art during a rehearsal at the Harriet Performing Arts Center.

Josie Aldridge, a 13-year-old eighth-grade student at Center Hill Middle School in Olive Branch, Miss., joined the group when she was seven years old. She’s on the cusp of doing something great.

An aspiring writer and spoken-word artist, Josie is a little shy – until she takes the stage and delivers a panoply of poetry. But Chandler and her team first helped Josie to release her inhibitions. 

“It helped me come out of my comfort zone. Without it, I wouldn’t have shared any of my writings in the first place,” said Josie, who was inspired to write after listening to the art of spoken word.

“Originally, I was writing songs. But I stopped doing that because I heard other spoken word [art] online, especially during quarantine,” she said. “So, I started writing my own.” 

“They come alive on stage,” said Chandler, referring to Josie and other standouts who shine when they’re facing an audience.

“Josie is phenomenal,” added Sabrina Norwood, YAG’s executive director. “We always tell young people to find their purpose.”

Many of them did – and excelled. 

Gideon McKinney was a 2006 semi-finalist in Season 5 of American Idol; Kris Thomas competed in Season 4 of The Voice in 2013; and Evvie McKinney, Gideon’s sister, won the first season of The Four: Battle for Stardom in 2018. 

“Ms. Christi has a gift of putting people in the right place so that they can thrive,” said Norwood, adding: “We’re excited that young people have an awesome space to come to. We finally made our house a home.”

The Harriet’s funding sources vary. The major supporters are ArtsMemphis, which has naming rights to the dance studio; and Memphis Music Initiative, which has naming rights to the donor wall.

The Greater Memphis Chamber will snip the ribbon on Feb. 19.