Leslie Odom Jr. said having an arts education has helped him become a better person, and that it benefits young people planning on pursuing more than just entertainment-based careers.
“My arts education has made me a more empathetic person and has nurtured my natural curiosity about humanity and the human condition,” Odom said during the virtual Arthur Miller Foundation Honors gala on Monday. “If you know a little something about storytelling — how to reach people, how to connect with people — those things can be useful for the things you’re going to do in this world and be in this world.”
The Arthur Miller Foundation’s annual event took place virtually this year with host Sasha Hutchings. The night honors those involved in providing arts educations to students. Receiving awards for the work in furthering education were high school teacher Lisanne Shaffer and playwright Dominique Morisseau.
Shaffer, who teaches at Brooklyn High School of the Arts, accepted the AMD excellence in arts education award. Students spoke about their experiences learning from her, including former student Daija North, who said Shaffer brought her to a college interview when she needed someone to go with her. To Shaffer, arts educations is a two-way street that allows teachers to learn even as they’re teaching students.
“My students have taught me more about life and about being a human being than any book I’ve ever read or any course I’ve ever taken,” she said. “Our country is presently in a climate that needs healing, and our young people are watching, our young people are listening and they are looking at themselves in the mirror. Let’s keep arts education strong and make sure they learn to love what they see.”
Marcus Edward, another former student of Shaffer’s, performed a short scene from “All My Sons” alongside actor Chiké Okonkwo during the event. A student ensemble currently enrolled at Brooklyn High School of the Arts performed songs as well.
Morisseau, also honored during the night’s proceedings, took home the AMF legacy award. Apart from teaching in New York city for around a decade, she has written various plays on social issues, such as “Pipeline,” a work about the school-to-prison pipeline affecting Black students. She also wrote the book for “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations,” a musical currently running on Broadway.
“Arts, and education and social justice theater has [been] — and will always be — lifesaving, essential work,” she said. “I come from this work, and doing this work has inspired me and allowed me to create Obie award-winning work for theater and stages across this country.”
Cast members from “Ain’t Too Proud” performed a piece to congratulate Morisseau on being honored for her work in education.
Other guests and performers included Nicolette Robinson, Julianne Moore, Phillipa Soo, Steven Pasquale, Vanessa Williams, Celia Rose Gooding, LaChanze, Mandy Gonzalez and Javier Muñoz.
Muñoz said that supporting foundations and programs like AMF is important in helping bring about a world of theatrical entertainment that’s more diverse and equitable for people of color. “I wish it weren’t revolutionary to have diversity on stage, but it is, and so there’s still more to do,” he said. “I find it an obligation for me to be able to use my platform to help further these things, and it also creates room for someone after me to have to fight a little less.”