May 5, 2016
Theater Program Gives Juvenile Offenders Space To Change
By Aaron Mudd
Bowling Green Daily News
Bowling Green, KY (AP)
When kids make poor choices, it’s easy for them to go down the wrong path without guidance. So, a Western Kentucky University theater program is attempting to intervene in the lives of local low-level juvenile offenders by allowing them to act out their experiences on stage.
``What we’re trying to do is to help build some really strong soft skills in the youth through the participation in this program,’’ said Jerry Daday, a sociology professor who helps organize The Patricia Minton Taylor Theatre-in-Diversion program.
Each spring semester, over a 10-week period, WKU students work with a group of 10 to 15 youth teaching them the basics of acting, along with guiding them as they craft their own production. The result is a showcase of skits, some funny and others more serious, starring youth who’ve committed low-level status offenses - such as truancy and underage drinking. Youth can chose to do this or other community service for a sentence.
Carol Jordan, an instructor in WKU’s Department of Theatre and Dance, runs the theater aspect of the program and supervises a group of theater students who work with the youth. It’s typically a choice for participants, she said.
``This is one of the few options that exists locally where they can actually do some sort of course or class,’’ Jordan said, adding it’s more in-depth than wiping down gym equipment or helping out at the Bowling Green-Warren County Humane Society.
After completing the program, the offender’s criminal record is wiped away. Jordan said they often go away feeling more self-confident and have healthier relationships and better friendships.
Putting together their own show can also be therapeutic, Jordan said.
``A lot of those pieces, it’s very obvious that students are working through issues and things that they are encountering in their own lives,’’ she said. ``I think that that can be really powerful.’’
This year’s production will feature skits focusing on animal abuse and raising awareness, a crime drama and runaway siblings who meet a mysterious woman down the road.
Diversion programs started as a response to heavy criticism of low level status offenses during the 1960s and ‘70s, according to Robert Agnew’s ``Juvenile Delinquency: Causes and Control.’’ Status offenses were often vague and exposed kids who hadn’t previously committed crimes to confinement in institutions where they could be physically or sexually assaulted. The response was the inception of diversion programs that tried to steer youth away from a life a crime instead of toward it.
Since WKU’s program began in the spring of 2012, Daday has worked with students to study its influence. WKU sociology students gather information by asking participants to voluntarily share their experiences with the program through interviews. Daday recently presented some of those findings to members of the Bowling Green Noon Rotary Club.
For context, the research is based on 22 voluntary interviews with program participants. Daday said 57 percent of the youth have said their relationship with their parents is better, 47 percent say relationships with teachers and their public school improved and 36 percent report better relationships with their peers.
``The overwhelming pattern is the youth tell us that the program, above all else, helps them build confidence,’’ Daday said. ``It helps them overcome the fear of public speaking and stage fright.’’
Participants also report better teamwork, openness to other perspectives and self-reflection, he said.
``Seventy percent of the youth that we’ve interviewed have told us that they’re not involved in any structured activities after school,’’ he said. ``We know through criminological research that if you’re not engaged in structured activities you’re engaged in unstructured activities. That’s a risk factor for delinquency.’’
Jessica Cundiff is a Louisville sophomore majoring in theatre and minoring in sociology. She also shared her experience with the program during the Rotary Club meeting.
``There’s so much reward out of just being there for someone and seeing them grow and become the person that you know they can be,’’ Cundiff told the Daily News before the meeting.
She’s also seen the program turn around kids involved.
``The biggest thing that they get out of it from my perspective is a mentor,’’ Cundiff said. ``A lot of these kids come from really, really rough backgrounds, and a lot of them don’t really have someone that cares about them.’’
Cathy Pippin, a court designated worker with the Kentucky Court of Justice, said that although some kids are initially hesitant, they later warm up to the program. Some have even opted to go through the program twice, she said.
``It’s had a very positive effect on our kids,’’ she said. ``They’re allowed to express themselves and create on their own.’’
Program participants were unable to comment because their identities are kept confidential by the state.
Several local high school students, who are not affiliated with the diversion program, attended the Rotary Club meeting as part of a separate mentoring program through the club.
Dequantez Lewis, a Bowling Green High School sophomore, said the program could be good for kids and give them something to do other than criminal activities.
Bowling Green sophomore Jeremy Anthony agreed and appreciated that the program was a choice.
Circuit Court Judge Steve Wilson also appreciated hearing about the program.
``Any time that you can intervene early in a young person’s life and just get them off of their path ... it’s got to have an impact.’’
Obscure Texas Bluesman Alger Alexander Gets Grave Marker
By Matthew Tresaugue
Richards, Texas (AP) - The Longstreet Cemetery is a small one, tucked amid the tall pines of northwest Montgomery County. This place is devoid of sound except for that of birds, wind and the occasional pickup.
But there is music in the ground, if you know where to look.
Buried in one of the graveyard’s back rows is Alger ``Texas’’ Alexander, whose soulful moans, shouts and hollers after years working in cotton fields and on the railroad made him a father of the Texas blues.
Few will recognize the name, for this was a man whose death 62 years ago this month went unreported by the local newspaper. He died penniless despite a rich musical legacy that influenced bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lowell Fulson.
In an effort to make up for the neglect of the past, the Montgomery County Historical Commission plans to honor Alexander with a historical marker at the African-American cemetery. It would be only the second site with the designation in the fast-growing county. Last year the commission awarded one to a Conroe barber shop that has operated for nearly a century.
``He is a little-known but very important figure in the development of the Texas blues,’’ Larry Foerster, chairman of the historical commission, told the Houston Chronicle. ``There are many other blues artists, like Hopkins, who get all the attention. But Texas Alexander was really the one these blues artists emulated.’’
Alexander was born in Leon County in 1900 and raised in Richards. He learned how to sing the blues from other blacks while working in the fields and began to perform at picnics and other events. He could not play the guitar but carried one with him to loan to others.
With the increasing popularity of the blues in the Roaring `20s, Alexander made his first recording sessions in New York for the Okeh Records label. In all, he recorded more than 60 songs from 1927 to 1934.
When Alexander sang the blues, he bellowed. He often skipped a beat, and his timing was tough for a band to follow. But it didn’t stop some of the era’s top musicians from playing with him.
``He was an amazing guy who hollered field-type blues,’’ said music scholar Chris Strachwitz, whose Arhoolie record label is devoted to American roots music. ``He had a good, strong voice.’’
Coy Prather, an Austin-based music writer, said Alexander’s career was held back by his inability to play an instrument, ``but his songwriting was a step above.’’
Among Alexander’s songs was ``The Risin’ Sun,’’ which some music historians believe later evolved into the folk-rock ballad ``The House of the Rising Sun,’’ a chart-topping hit for the British group the Animals.
Alexander also wrote ``Frost Texas Tornado Blues,’’ which told of the tornado that tore through the town in 1930, killing 41 people. He recorded the song with the Mississippi Sheiks in 1934.
``Some lost their babies
``Was blown for two or three miles around
``When they come to their right mind
``They come on back to town
``Rooster was crowing, cows were lowing
``Never heard such a noise before
``Does seem like hell was broke out
``In this place below.
After the recording, he returned to Texas to play neighborhood dives and juke joints. And then, he disappeared.
Some say he spent five years until 1945 in prison for murdering his wife. But Prather said he couldn’t find any record of Alexander being arrested or serving jail time in the Texas counties where he lived.
Instead, Prather said he believes Alexander was arrested and sentenced to county-run work farms without any paper trail. At the time, it was illegal to perform ``race music,’’ blues songs about bad women and sexual acts, in front of a white crowd.
But those were Alexander’s best-known songs.
``It’s so sad,’’ Prather said. ``Here is a man who influenced Texas blues as much as anyone, and he is being forgotten because of a crime he probably didn’t commit.’’
Alexander resurfaced in Houston in the late 1940s, singing with Hopkins for tips on street corners and railroad platforms.
In time, Hopkins moved on with his iconoclastic blues career, and Alexander went home to Richards, where he died of syphilis in 1954.
To find Alexander’s final resting place, take FM 149 North, the winding two-lane road that slices through the Sam Houston National Forest.
Continue past a Baptist church and cattle pastures and turn right at the green-roofed community center, known as Montgomery County Voting Box 5.
After one more right turn, onto a slender two-lane road with barely room for passing trucks, there is a U.S. flag to mark the unpaved parking lot for Longstreet Cemetery.
The graveyard is a small, sloped clearing in the pine barrens, with some 200 headstones, as well as countless other unmarked graves for the indigent dead.
Alexander’s grave was among those without a marker until Prather wrote about him in Texas Music magazine’s spring 2014 edition.
Shortly after the article appeared, so did a granite gravestone beside the burial plot of his cousin.
The flat marker reads simply: Blues legend Alger ``Texas’’ Alexander.
Prather said no one seems to know who placed the stone. But he said one of Alexander’s relatives confirmed that the family believes the cousins were buried side by side.
Even with the simple marker, Prather said more should be done to honor the bluesman. So he has been working with the Montgomery County on the historical designation for the cemetery.
Foerster said the site is worthy of state recognition but the county can move faster than the budget-strapped Texas Historical Commission on placing a marker.
The biggest hurdle still is the price tag, which is $1,200 for the marker.
The commission is more than halfway to the amount, with the country singer Gary P. Nunn among the donors.
``We have such a great heritage of the blues in this state,’’ Prather said. ``I wish we did a better job of honoring it.’’