You’d best come dressed to move in Nikki Toombs’s class. Dressed in a red jumpsuit and sparkly black sandals, she leads a group of dance and theatre teachers in Georgia’s Clayton County School System in a warm-up incorporating a West African praise dance and an Indian chant for peace, as a way to demonstrate how teachers can incorporate diverse cultures into everyday activities with their students. She then turns it over to choreographer Victor Jackson, who leads a master class with the musical On Your Feet! as a prompt to address immigration.
With this approach, which she calls “not a sit-and-get, more like a know-and-go,” Toombs is helping to develop a model curriculum with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Educational Theatre Association. She says she hopes for “a Golden Corral effect,” referring to a popular buffet restaurant; she wants teachers to “walk away full of wisdom and knowledge” they can then pass on to their students.
This partnership with Clayton County schools is just one part of her job as education director at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta. True Colors also hosts “Page to the Stage” reading programs for elementary school students, a summer internship for college students and Act Like A Lady, a program teaching middle school girls positive leadership and communication skills through the arts.
“Nikki treats all kids the same, like they all have possibility of doing something amazing and great,” said Kenny Leon, the theatre’s founding artistic director. “She understands that the root of our success in this country is education—education for every single person that has a beating heart. She lives it and walks it every day.”
A mother of four with degrees in language arts education and arts-integrated curriculum, Toombs moved to Atlanta from Alabama nearly a decade ago to teach high school English and theatre. She discovered True Colors when her students participated in the August Wilson Monologue Competition, and then the education director position opened up.
When Toombs came to True Colors, 30 schools participated in the competition; three years later, that number has swelled to 81 schools in 20 counties. Georgia finalist Ikia Furse Samuels, a 2018 graduate of Academy of Richmond County High School in Augusta, Ga., who competed in the New York finals with a monologue from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2017 and 2018, says that Toombs “always had encouraging words before stepping on the stage. She is the reason I love theatre, and also the reason I now can walk onstage and speak to any large crowd.”
While many monologue participants have gone on to academic and artistic success, for Toombs the program reaches far beyond that.
“I’ve seen this program bring families together,” she says. “I had a student whose father hated that he wanted to do theatre, but when he saw him win the entire thing it changed the dynamics of their relationship.”
Toombs dreams of creating a conservatory and performance space for artists of all backgrounds, and hopes to inspire students and arts educators to use theatre for social activism.
“It starts with us trying to level the playing field in the arts,” said Toombs, who is also an art commissioner for the city of Snellville. “We have to create a sandbox that all can come in and play. My responsibility as director of education is to create those moments where every kid has a piece of theatre in their daily lives.”