The first thing you notice about the children dancing and singing their way across the room is that they’re good.
Not just that they’re talented, which, they are. These children are also obedient, polite, respectful, disciplined and eager to minister to others.
Outside, it’s the hottest day of the year, with a record 102-degree temperature baking the city. The large room in the Miracle Christian Life Center, where these members of the Savannah Drama Club are rehearsing, has no air conditioning. But these kids aren’t worried. They swing their arms, stomp their feet, twirl and even drop down for some break-dancing.
The rehearsal takes place under the direction of Pastor Carl Gilliard, who raps music and instructions through a microphone. He’s sweating like crazy, but he too is caught up in the excitement.
“It was 13 years ago that we got started,” he says. “My wife and I would come home to our little apartment, and kids would be meeting us there.”
Gilliard and his wife, Lashawanda, soon realized the neighborhood kids were aimless, bored and lonely. Their favorite topics were rap and hip-hop music, and they all wanted to rap and dance.
Gilliard saw a need that he was uniquely suited to fill. “I came out of a rap background,” he says. “My wife and I said we would do what we could. Thirteen years and hundreds of kids later, it’s still going on.”
To get started, Gilliard began going to the City of Savannah summer camps to work with children. In May 1997, the program grew into the Savannah Drama Club, a Christian cultural arts program that performs what Gilliard calls “Hip Hop Praise.” He uses theater, poetry, music, dance, spoken word and even mime to reach his students, who then use their talents to reach others. “The most powerful thing about it is that it is a ministry,” Gilliard says.
But at first, not everyone was enthusiastic. “When we first started, a lot of churches didn’t allow this kind of thing,” Gilliard says. “We’d go to a church, and they’d say ‘What are you doing?’ Now, it’s acceptable and people understand what we’re trying to do.”
The Savannah Drama Club held its first summer camp in 1999 -- one of the first Christian summer camps in Savannah, with more than 300 attending. In addition to local churches, community centers and even jails, the Savannah Drama Club has taken its act on the road to Atlanta, Jacksonville, Detroit, Windsor, Canada and Washington D.C. “We’re getting ready to go back to perform at the White House for the fifth time,” Gilliard says.
The children have met U.S. senators and congressmen, and they’ve performed with such artists as Shirley Caesar, Detrick Hadon, Perfect Praise and Mary Mary.
Some children love the Savannah Drama Club so much, they keep coming back even after they’re grown. “Ages 4 to 16 is the tradition, but we’ve got alumni up to age 20 who keep coming back and getting involved,” Gilliard says.
There are around 42 members of the Savannah Drama Club, which meets at least twice a week year round. Gilliard uses a gentle form of tough love to keep them in line.
“It does require discipline,” he says. “You can’t do anything if you don’t have discipline. Everywhere we go, we go to serve the Lord. These kids know they’re serving a higher power. There’s no competition. We come to worship.”
At 16, Jack Johnson is one of the group’s oldest members. “It keeps me out of trouble,” he says. “I believe the message we are bringing comes through the music and people start listening. I believe what we’re doing is all good.”
The Savannah Drama Club hopes to minister at the Chatham County Jail soon. “We go to jails as well as community centers,” Gilliard says. “We take music, theater and spoken word and hope we reach the inmates.
“The first time we went to the jail 13 years ago, there were over 800 inmates there,” he says. “The kids were scared, everyone was scared. But by the time we got midway through, everyone was in tears. It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen.” One of the inmates wrote to thank the group for the performance.
The Savannah Drama Club also works with families at Union Mission’s Magdalene House. “We pick families up and bring them here,” Gilliard says. “They’re all part of our family.”
When traveling outside Savannah, the group goes to community recreation centers to perform. “We had a chance to go to Detroit, Mich.,” Gilliard says. “There were 44 community centers there. They had a summer camp with over 4,000 kids at one time.”
Some group members have become seasoned travelers because of the Savannah Drama Club, while others discover traveling for the very first time. “A lot of the kids have never experienced going out of our community,” Gilliard says. “We’re getting ready to go back to the White House in October. For the kids, it’s a powerful thing to experience during a three-day trip. They visit the Capitol, the Lincoln Monument.”
In 1998, the children performed on the steps of the Capitol. The cost of a trip to Washington, D.C. is about $5,000. The children each pay $150 to go, and the rest of the money comes from donations.
Gilliard says Pastor Ricky Temple gave a large donation to help the group. “He’s an awesome pastor,” Gilliard says.
Gwen Newsome, grandmother of Savannah Drama Club member Najee Newsome, appreciates the program because it appeals to young people, yet is wholesome.
“It gives them a chance to create and feel the spirit of the Lord and move and praise Him,” she says.
Some members have been performing for years and have no plans to stop. “I’ve been in it about nine years,” says Ayana Gunn, 13. “I love to dance. It’s fun. If one person is saved, it’s worth it. It’s good to help someone else.”
Ayana’s sister, Imani Gunn, 15, started in the program 11 years ago. “It’s not work to me,” she says. “I think it’s just fun. We’re all like family and we have fun.”
Three of the Gilliards’ own daughters are members. “It’s been a good experience to me,” says Destine Gilliard, 12. “I like bringing this music to the youth. It’s a nice experience meeting people outside of Savannah. I plan to do dance in college.”
Zikell Arrington, 15, has been with the group for 11 years. “The most impressive thing was when we went to the white House and met a U.S. senator,” he says.
Ashley Bruin, 14, moved away for a while, but rejoined the group when she came back to Savannah. “I wanted to be out in the community,” she says. “If you’re like me, slow to catch on, doing this is hard. But everyone just says, ‘You can do it!’ -- and I do.”