If not for a belt buckle, Benjamin Carson might have been just another statistic, just another black man incarcerated for murder.
But when, as a teenager, he lunged at a classmate with a knife, the blade collapsed upon hitting the other boy's belt buckle. Stunned by what he'd almost done, Carson locked himself in a bathroom and prayed. From that day forward, he changed his ways. And he went on to become a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Carson's story has long inspired inner-city kids who can relate to his childhood: poor, living in a single-parent household, struggling to keep up in school, struggling to control a hot temper.
Fourteen years ago, director and playwright Carole Graham Lehan adapted the doctor's autobiographies for the stage. Now thousands of Baltimore students get to see a professional performance of Ben Carson, M.D. every year during Black History Month.
Over three days this week, the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts is busing more than 3,500 city students to watch the play in the auditorium at the Lake Clifton high school complex. The center is also providing the kids, who are mostly fourth- and fifth-graders and come from 54 schools, with their own copies of the Carson autobiography Gifted Hands.
"Who knows who Ben Carson is?" actress Janine Sunday asked the crowd yesterday morning at the first of six performances. Nearly every hand in the overheated auditorium went up. "Wonderful!" she said. "Then we're in business."
The play, as Sunday explained, is "minimalist theater," with minimal costume changes and a minimal set: a few chairs and a cart. Four of the five cast members play multiple roles, with one actor appearing as 16 people in the hourlong production. Then there's Carson himself, who goes from age 7 to 54 over the course of the hour and is played at all times by 48-year-old Prince Havely.
"Use your imagination, and pretend it's everything you want it to be," said Sunday, who portrayed 14 characters.
But if the production - also staged each January at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, including an annual performance for the real-life Carson family and students in the Carson Scholars program - is short on funds, it has plenty of heart.
The hero, along with Carson, is his mother, Sonya, who had a third-grade education but still demanded academic excellence from her two sons. She required them to write extra book reports, even though she needed a neighbor's help to read what they submitted. Raising the boys in Detroit and Boston, she saw the value of an education while cleaning the homes of wealthy people and taking care of their children.
"Bennie," as Sonya Carson called her son, resented his mother for not buying him nice clothes, until she gave him the family's finances to manage.
The play addresses the racism that Carson encountered, years later, when he became director of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins at age 33. Though he would perform a first-of-its-kind operation and separate Siamese twins joined at the head, some patients didn't want a black physician.
Overcoming many obstacles in his life, Carson developed the mantra "THINK BIG." The words are an acronym for his guiding principles: "T" is for talent (everyone has it, so find yours) and time (use it wisely). "H" is for hope and honesty, and so on. He contends, and the play concludes, that any young person who decides to THINK BIG will be successful.
The message wasn't lost on the students in the audience, despite the excitement of being on a field trip. ("Boys and girls, we're in high school," one teacher told her charges in the hallway outside the auditorium. "Be quiet!")
"I thought the show was very amazing," said Antwoine Oliver, 11, a sixth-grader at Bluford Drew Jemison MST Academy. "It allows the students to know that, if you have a struggle, you can always overcome it."
Classmate Marcellis Williams, also 11, said Carson's story inspires him to control his own temper. "It allows students to understand what people before them have gone through," he said.
Both boys had already seen the play last year as fifth-graders, but they said they got more out of it this time.
"When I was in fifth grade, I didn't really understand how I would reach for my goals," said Antwoine, who wants to be a lawyer. Now, he said, "I'm a debate captain. I work hard in school and pay attention."