Roshunda Jones-Koumba holds court in the classroom. She is a teacher, mentor, friend, and sometimes therapist to nearly 200 students at G.W. Carver High School in Houston, where she’s served as the drama teacher for 18 years. The magnet school is a historical landmark in the Acres Home neighborhood, a predominantly Black community in the city’s northwest. Carver is known for its technology and engineering tracks, and, thanks to Jones-Koumba, a flourishing arts program with past productions including Hairspray, Memphis, Dreamgirls, and The Color Purple, which had a sprawling cast of 130. In January, G.W. Carver Magnet High School will be the first high school in the country to stage the jukebox tuner Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
Jones-Koumba’s extraordinary efforts were recognized in June at the Tony Awards with the Excellence in Theatre Education Award, presented by Carnegie Mellon University, which since 2015 has honored a high school drama teacher who has made an outsized impact on their students. The award came not only with the famous spinning medallion but also a $10,000 cash prize to support the drama program, and a master class with Carnegie Mellon University faculty at the winning teacher’s high school.
The master class for G.W. Carver Magnet High School’s drama program on Nov. 28, which I was fortunate to be on hand for, turned out to be a further test of Jones-Koumba’s creativity and her students’ can-do spirit; the evening before the event, the city of Houston declared a “boil water” notice after a power outage at the East Water Purification Plant. The citywide public health directive included school closures, which left visiting CMU faculty without a location for the master class, and the students without bus transportation.
Jabari Collins, the drama program’s technical director, assured the visiting CMU staffers that the show would go on. “If anyone can figure this out, it’s Roshunda,” Collins said calmly. Indeed, after countless phone calls and late-night text messages, Jones-Koumba worked her extensive network and found a nearby dance studio to hold the master class. She even arranged for carpooling.
“I always call my students the Ever Ready Players,” said Jones-Koumba. “If there’s something in the way, they’re not giving up—there’s a way to make it happen. And I love that spirit.”
It’s not hard to see where they get that spirit.
A group of 15 students spilled into HeartBeat Houston Dance and Fitness studio the next morning singing “Seasons of Love” in harmony, as high school theatre kids are apt to do. The schedule for the day included vocal exercises, text analysis, choreography, and discussions about the business of acting to give the students a preview of studying theatre at the collegiate level.
CMU’s newly appointed head of the School of Drama, Robert Ramirez, set the tone for the master class. “No one is here to give you a grade,” he said. “There’s not going to be an award handed out at the end of the day. Give yourself the room to be free as an artist without the fear of judgment and without the pressure to have to do it right.”
After settling into the space, CMU assistant professor of voice Lisa Velten Smith helped the energetic group find space in their bodies. The students roamed around the room reciting the tongue twister “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” a warm-up that doubled as an exercise in character development and world-building. “I feel so free!” one teen chirped.
Next, assistant acting professor Kyle Haden paired the students off to identify beats in a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! The students read lines as Dick and Muriel, moving around the studio to mark each emotional shift.
Velten Smith and Haden then spoke about their career paths and doled out advice for finding casting notices, preparing for auditions, and managing finances between gigs. An overarching theme of the day was how the students could apply the skills learned in Jones-Koumba’s classroom beyond the stage.
“You will probably discover that you will be right for so many different careers because of the tools that you are learning,” Velten Smith said. “You’re learning acting skills, but you are learning so much more than that. You’re learning how to negotiate, right? You’re learning how to speak with other people.”
Indeed, a few of Jones-Koumba’s senior students shared their plans to study the natural sciences and speech pathology next year, to thunderous applause. And for students with their eyes on the stage, Haden offered this: “There is now more room for people who look like us…I have much greater hope for you than I had for me coming out of school, you know? I didn’t have people who looked at me telling me I could do this. I’m a person who looks like you, and I’m telling you that you can do this. And I hope you do! I hope to be across the table from you at some point in time, holding the door open.”
After a lunch break, the rapt students circled up for a discussion between Ramirez and CMU alumni Antwayn Hopper, currently starring as Thought 6 in A Strange Loop on Broadway. The pair spoke about the profound influence their former teachers had on their path in the theatre industry and the world.
“Y’all are very blessed to have Ms. Jones,” Hopper said. “Nancy Scrinopskie Epoch was my Ms. Jones, and she saw something in me and heard something in me that I had not recognized.”
Likewise, Ramirez’s journey to becoming a theatre educator was kickstarted by a high school theatre teacher.
“The most exciting thing to me in the world,” he said, “is to watch a young person in a room have a spark of an idea and discover the power in themselves, and then to help them to access it. I don’t think teachers give you something you didn’t have before. What they do is they direct you and they guide you in the direction of your power and your talent and your gifts—they give you some tools along the way of accessing.”
Perhaps the biggest theme of the day was the importance of using those tools for the greater good. “Art is essential to life,” said Ramirez. “I don’t think there’s any real living without art…If you don’t have a life where you’re experiencing art, making art, admiring it or supporting it, how do you really access yourself and your humanity?”
The students, wise beyond their years, asked how to find a support network outside their families, how to become more comfortable with themselves, and how to maintain mental wellness. “I wanted to take a minute to appreciate you two,” a small voice said from the crowd. “This is really inspirational and heartfelt to me being a minority, and also being a part of the LGBTQ+ community. You being here is really helpful for me.”
In the afternoon, professor of dance Tomé Cousin brought the cohort to their feet. “Choreography is about telling a story—or not,” said Cousin over a booming beat. “If you don’t tell a story, you’re going to represent something like emotions or colors.” The students took places at the ballet barre and followed Cousin’s lead through various warm-ups.
The session culminated in “Monster,” an exercise inspired by the work of the Alvin Ailey company, which encouraged the students to let loose in a full-body explosion. “Inside every actor is a monster!” shouted Cousin as the students formed clawed hands and stomped around the studio.
The master class ended with an energy circle conspired by the effervescent Hopper, with students holding hands and jumping in the air.
“I’m very thankful to you all for showing up today, even when we had no water,” said Hopper with a laugh. “Showing up today, not knowing what the answer or question may be, showing up and showing out, because that’s what we do, right?”
Around the circle, the students each shouted out one word to summarize the day: “inspiring,” “enlightening,” “empowering,” “thrilling,” “meaningful,” “rebirth.” For 10th grader Cora Frazier, the big takeaway was that art is for everybody. “One thing I got from this experience is that theatre is everywhere.”
For Trinity Jones, a ninth-grader, the highlight was Cousin’s movement workshop. “We all got a chance to get away from our stress and worries,” she said. “We learned to express ourselves through freestyling and had a chance to live in the moment, and we created something very powerful from that.”
For her part, Jones-Koumba chose the word “heartfelt” to describe the master class. “The students were all engaged, and you can tell that they were inspired to go out and do anything—the sky’s the limit,” she said. “Just to have that representation there was so important for them.”
Since the 2022 Tony Awards, Jones-Koumba’s spotlight has been shining even brighter. Just last month, she was named on Ebony’s Power 100 List and attended a star-studded event in Los Angeles with fellow art awardees Michael R. Jackson, Myles Frost, and Jeremy O. Harris. Her accolades also include the 2021 Stephen Schwartz Musical Theatre Teacher of the Year Award, the International Thespian Society Inspirational Theatre Educator Award, and induction into the Texas Thespians Hall of Fame. The city of Wharton, Texas, her hometown, declared June 28th as a day to honor her.
But her biggest reward, she said, is seeing her students succeed in various fields.
“It’s just beautiful to see my students blossom,” she effused, rattling off a list of former students now pursuing careers as nurses, entrepreneurs, and lawyers. Actors too: Fernell Hogan, one of her former students at the Theatre Under the Stars Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, is currently in Kimberly Akimbo on Broadway.
“This award has really opened my students’ eyes on how important the arts are globally,” said Jones-Koumba. “They have become advocates for arts education and will tell whoever will listen about how important it is for arts to be at every single school.”
Allison Considine (she/her) is a former senior editor of this magazine.
*Carnegie Mellon University supported our reporter’s travel to Houston to cover the master class.
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