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'Unsung hero' operetta; Third-, fourth-graders tell Banneker's life story in teachers' production


Perched at the piano between the stage and chorus bleachers, Marian Briscuso had her hands full.

She tapped the keys and mouthed the words to help soloists on stage with the lyrics, then swung around to the chorus in midsong, mouthed some more words, then ran on stage to yell about a prop.

She was almost as busy as, well, Benjamin Banneker.

Briscuso was in the middle of a rehearsal of an operetta telling Banneker's life story. The approximately 70-member cast, including chorus singers, will perform today and tomorrow when the show will be presented at McCormick Elementary School in the Overlea area of Baltimore County.

Briscuso, a music teacher at the school, calls Banneker "a neglected hero an unsung hero." She's hoping the operetta -- performed by third- and fourth-graders in celebration of Black History Month -- will help remedy this.

Banneker was born a free African-American in Ellicott Mills on the Patapsco River in 1731 and died in Baltimore in 1806. A farmer, scientist, astronomer and mathematician, he built one of the country's first wooden clocks in his early 20s.

In 1791, he wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson challenging slavery and appealing for a more liberal attitude toward blacks, noting his work as evidence of blacks' intellectual equality.

Jefferson, as secretary of state, recommended to President George Washington that Banneker be appointed to the Capitol Commission as part of a team laying out the District of Columbia.

"He was very brilliant for his time, and I believe it's important for the children to have a figure like this," said Briscuso.

The operetta, "Adventures in Learning: The Life of Benjamin Banneker," is an original production by Briscuso and two other Baltimore County teachers, Cyrilla H. Bolster and Deborah McClintock.

The cast is an energetic group that commanded every bit of Briscuso's attention at Friday's dress rehearsal.

After scurrying back to her piano bench, Briscuso played a song, jumped in front of the chorus to conduct and never stopped smiling.

The cast smiled, too.

Natasha Araujo, 8, is a chorus member with one additional responsibility. "When we sing, I go, like, 'boom'," she said, motioning to her minigong. "It's fun, and the parents are proud of us and things like that."

She pointed to William Barksdale, 9, who plays Banneker, and said, "He's a great singer."

Costumed in a white shirt and black pants about 3 inches short of his ankles, William sang in a clear soprano, right on key. A member of the Maryland State Boychoir, he also leads his section of the choir, Briscuso said.

Briscuso also praised the rest of the hard-working cast.

"Through this performance-based endeavor," Briscuso said, "the students have not only gained knowledge of Banneker, but have been inspired by his perseverance and intellect."

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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