If she were commanding a Broadway stage, Nadria Jennings' ballad, "Hold Me," would be the showstopper.
In a sweet soprano, Jennings, 17, sings about children who have lost parents to drugs, AIDS and violence. "All they want," she vocalizes, "is love and a normal life."
During a noisy rehearsal in a West Baltimore church, Jennings captures the toll of so many deadly plagues on Baltimore's children, including herself. Her father died when she was 7.
When she joined the Nu World Art Ensemble, a performing arts company, three years ago, Jennings found a family, an outlet for her talent, and a way to turn tragedy into art. The work is "healing for me," says the Dr. Samuel L. Banks High School graduate. "Every emotion can be expressed through art."
Tonight, WombWork Productions, which runs the Nu World ensemble, celebrates its 10th anniversary at a fundraising gala at the American Visionary Art Museum. Nu World will perform, and a number of the group's supporters will be honored.
WombWork was founded by Rashida Forman-Bey, Kay Lawal-Muhammad and Nata'aska Humminbird, each of whom had raised their children "to have great love and interest in the arts," Lawal-Muhammad says. Together, they resolved to become parents to other children whose mothers and fathers were absent.
WombWork was created with a village in mind, and its directors looked to the rituals of African and American Indian culture to provide "the glue that connected us," Lawal-Muhammad says.
In its early years, WombWork operated solely as a summer and after-school program for training in the arts. It has since evolved into Nu World, a year-round performing arts company with 52 members, ages 8 to 30.
Under the tutelage of its directors, guest artists and public health experts, Nu World members render true stories into theater. Performers grapple with personal demons while offering lessons on HIV awareness, domestic violence and drug abuse. As they collaborate, troupe members make "changes in the community and within themselves," Forman-Bey says.
In "Drug Abuse, Life Abuse: Breaking the Cycle," performers relate tales of abandonment and death. In one scene, a young actress tearfully speaks of the mother who gave her up: "Instead of hating you, I just pretend that you don't exist."
Past Nu World performances have addressed suicide, body image, post-traumatic stress syndrome and challenges to parents, and have worked to dispel social taboos concerning HIV and homosexuality.
Nu World's African drummers propel scenes set in jail, in health clinics, at home, on the street and in other locales. The company shrugs off the emotional weight of its narratives with electrifying African dances choreographed by Naizou Nai, double-jointed hip-hop moves and abundant hugs. Occasionally, the company's elders also break from their somber accounts to present comedy.
Nu World has performed for a host of organizations, including the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition; the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing; Baltimore's Safe & Sound Campaign; the Urban Institute; YO! Baltimore, a youth opportunity program; and Sisters Together and Reaching, a faith-based program for women with HIV/AIDS.
The ensemble delivers its message in a "culturally sensitive" way, says Debra Hickman, co-founder of Sisters Together. The key to connecting with an audience is "really pouring your heart and soul into gaining an understanding about the people [you're] getting ready to communicate with," Hickman says. Nu World Art Ensemble has "been right on it each time."
Supported by grants from the Baltimore Community Foundation, the Baltimore Family League and other sources, WombWork operated last year on a $150,000 budget, a creative shoestring. Props come from dollar stores, and costumes may consist of jean skirts festooned with streamers of African fabric that confetti the air with color. Members' mothers volunteer as costume and set designers.
Most Nu World performers have kept away from drugs and crime, while a few struggle and have spent time in prison. Even those members often return and share testimonies with the ensemble, Forman-Bey says.
And as Nu World members grow up, "They [realize that they] really are the organization and their contribution is really, really important," she says.
WombWork has allowed children such as Indirah Auguste, a 12-year-old student at the Stadium School, to overcome her reluctance to perform. Indirah is also mindful of the contribution Nu World members have made beyond the ensemble.
"When we perform in a community, the community changes its ways," she says. Each show presents a new perspective, a new way of thinking, she says. "One by one, it changes just a little bit of Baltimore."