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Inclusion in Action: When the Trees Sing



Yesterday, a close friend of mine encouraged me to accompany her to see a Papa Tank Theatre for Inclusion performance of When the Trees Sing, an original play based on the work of Mattie Stepanek, directed by our dear friend and colleague, Larry Hembree, at the Washington Street United Methodist Church just down the street in Columbia, SC. I was not prepared for what we experienced, perhaps because I work so much with the words - diversity, inclusion, and equity - in writing proposals, presentations, and webinars that experiencing them in action as a meaningful and playful performance by children with multiple disabilities was so very REAL and overwhelmingly special.


The children’s singing, dancing, original artwork, and readings of Mattie’s Heartsongs were

interspersed with videotaped interviews of Mattie by Oprah Winfrey and Larry King, followed by an elegy given by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Mattie’s hero. The play, based on Mattie’s Heartsongs, was an extraordinary example of the vision for Papa Tank which was the brainchild of Bryann Burgess, a local musical theatre artist born with Down Syndrome who sought to create a program where young people with unique abilities could share in the joys of the arts. Although Mattie died at only 14 years from complications of Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy, he packed a lot into those too few years. He began penning his “gifts that reflect each person’s unique reason for being” at the age of three. All seven of his books became New York Times Bestsellers.


In When the Trees Sing, the children were accompanied by musicians, their parents, caregivers, grandparents, teaching artists, and siblings to a packed audience – I’m sure it would be quite the envy of the church’s pastor – that reflected the true mix of our city. Everyone applauded, teared up, smiled, and laughed together.


In my business, we all talk about and recognize the powerful healing that participation in the arts can bring us, but this was so much more. The words were penned by an incredibly talented young hero who lived his short life to the fullest as a poet, philosopher, and peacemaker. We need more Matties in our world, and we need to support the work of Papa Tank Theatre for Inclusion and other organizations doing this work.


Jan Newcomb, Executive Director, NCAPER



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