Community Jubilee

Story by Abby Veach; Photos by Trey Honeycutt & Travis Taylor

Certain Waco neighborhoods are notorious for their crime and poverty, making it seem as if this city is simply a mix of affluent university students and downtrodden poor. This view is not only unjustified; it’s incorrect. The neighborhoods outside Baylor are growing, and organizations like Mission Waco are making sure the people in these communities are growing, too.

Mission Waco’s Jubilee Theatre, located in the heart of old town Waco on 15th Street and Colcord Avenue, serves a greater purpose than just to entertain its patrons. The theater program allows youth from low-income neighborhoods to use their creativity as an avenue of hope.

Sutton and the kids read through a script during the youth program’s afternoon rehearsal.

Programs like the Jubilee Theatre were established so that children in Waco and its surrounding areas might have opportunities to see their own potential despite their circumstances, if only for just an hour each week. Here, the performers and producers expect more than a passive audience. They want to make participants think, and think hard.

The Jubilee Theatre is small from the outside, but the performance hall is large enough to seat 300 people. Afton Foreman, the theater’s creative director, says it’s the perfect size for now. Talking about the theater made it apparent that Foreman, like the Jubilee, is warm and inviting with a unique spirit and spunk most theater people seem to possess. Foreman has been the artistic director of the theater for a few months shy of a year, but she’s been with the theater since 2011. Needless to say, she knows exactly how the place operates.

The Jubilee welcomes performers of all ages, from five-year-olds to adults. Each program meets at a different time throughout the week to ensure that participants receive the same level of attention and opportunity to develop their skill sets.

On one particular Thursday afternoon, the kids hadn’t yet arrived for their practice. The warmth and stillness of the theater was instantly welcoming. It’s easy to see why people come to the Jubilee: Within the quiet space, Foreman’s passion for the kids in this program echoes loudly.

A shot of the Jubilee Theatre’s welcoming front doors.

“Seeing the kids’ confidence grow from when they started has been one of the biggest ways I’ve seen Jubilee impact people,” Foreman says. “I had a couple kids who came and were just here to try it out. They weren’t very confident about getting up in front of people and speaking, but now every single one of these kids wants to get on the stage.”

For many who participate in the program, life at home doesn’t always provide the proper environment for creative self-expression. With a poverty rate twice the national average, many of the Waco neighborhoods the Jubilee kids call home simply do not have the resources needed to provide a creative outlet. This is where Foreman and the Jubilee step in.

The Jubilee Theatre gives kids a place to relax and perform. They aren’t limited within the theater’s walls, but instead are asked to stretch their creativity and dreams farther than their circumstances may allow. From seeing University High School put on “Cinderella” featuring a nearly all-minority cast, to meeting Holly Tucker, a Waco native and former contestant on ABC’s hit show “The Voice,” Foreman explains that these experiences are more formative for the kids than one might expect.

Trent Sutton is a senior social work major at Baylor who has spent three years working with the Jubilee kids. He describes his take on the Jubilee Theatre:

“For many of these kids, theater is the only place where they’re actually encouraged to be loud, to be overly dramatic, to tell wild stories, to push back against direction at times, and more,” Sutton said. “The outlet theater provides has been helpful in allowing them to work through their behavioral problems in a context that is safe, fun and inviting, which in turn improves their behavior in other aspects of their lives.”

The youth program is growing rapidly under the direction of Sutton and Foreman. They both attest to the power theater has to shape both adults and children. Sutton and Foreman see the life-giving power performing holds, and Sutton says his time at Baylor would have been incomplete without the relationships and experiences he’s gained over the past three years at the theater.

“My role within the children and youth programming at Jubilee Theatre has allowed me entrance into the lives of some remarkable kids, just as it has allowed them entrance into mine,” Sutton says. “Sharing theater with people is something special; creating works of art with someone is a sacred experience.”

The Jubilee Theatre is a space where community engagement takes place and where children have the opportunity to better themselves. By attending a show at the Jubilee Theatre or investing in the youth programs, you are accepting an unspoken pledge to invest in the people of Waco. Once you sit down to enjoy a show, you will not be able to stop talking about this place.