"I don't care if a child wants to become a scientist or a policeman--every mother's child needs to be exposed to the arts one way or the other. The arts are a powerful instrument (to help) you learn about yourself, about individuality, how to speak, to project not just your voice, but feelings, to be able to communicate, reason, think . . . that is self-esteem."
The impassioned speaker is actor Ron Mokwena, who has a recurring role on NBC's "A Different World." He and actress-writer-director Misha McK have ambitious plans to bring the arts to at-risk young people through their newly formed Save Our Youth Arts and Education Organization.
As part of that goal, the pair's first fund-raiser, "Graffiti Blues," a "rap opera" addressing serious issues facing young people, opens Thursday for a four-day run at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Starring mostly non-professionals ages 10 to 28, the show will be kicked off on opening night with a celebrity-studded reception hosted by Dionne Warwick.
"It is a play about the plight of the youth," McK said. "It deals with a group of kids who hang out together and support one another; in their backgrounds are the things that have caused them to be who they are.
"It's a tragedy--there's a drive-by shooting and one character in the play who tries for a better life ends up committing suicide--but it has fun stuff, too. A lot of dancing, singing, jokes. . . . But we still have to focus on reality and what's going on with the kids."
"This is a community effort to sort of bring people together, make a change," Mokwena said.
During casting, they looked for young people who were "believable and sincere," McK said, "so, as you watch this play you wonder, are these actors, or are these people talking about their lives?"
McK and Mokwena said they first tuned in to youth concerns years ago when McK was doing NBC's "Me and Mrs. C" and the two of them would go to group homes and high schools to speak to kids about their acting careers.
"It seems that whether they lived in Scarsdale, N.Y., or Beverly Hills, Calif., or South-Central L.A., we found out self-esteem wasn't an economic issue, but was based on family structure," McK said.
"With that in mind, we thought, look how people are treating these kids like menaces to society, wanting to lock them up. If they would open their minds and understand where these kids come from . . . they would be more sympathetic."
The cast's involvement won't stop with the show, McK said. Long-term programs include a magazine, a youth board to complement the organization's executive board, theater arts workshops and more plays.
Several well-known actors have committed to participate in the organization's weekly "From the Screen to the Scene" program, according to McK. An actor a week will "come and speak to these young people on positive issues."
McK and Mokwena hope to sell out at the Civic, move into a bigger building and take the show to Broadway.
"Graffiti Blues," Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday-Sunday at 8 p.m., with matinees at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, $10-$35, (except opening night with reception, $50); (818) 577-4091.