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Thespians explain how it feels to be young

Throughout the Black History Pageant, young thespians learned their history. This year, they explain the present.

Published February 11, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - After 25 years of guiding young St. Petersburg residents through shows about black history, Peggy Peterman chose a topic near and dear to her performers' hearts: youth.

Peterman, the founder of the Black History Pageant, said she wanted the performers, ages 10 to 20, to express their often-misunderstood feelings through theater.

"I wanted to hear the voices of the children and what they were saying," said Peterman, a longtime columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. "Most adults don't understand what the droopy pants are all about . . . The message is: Why don't you accept me as I am?"

The 26th annual pageant, entitled Suffer the Children: A Celebration of African-American Youth, will be performed for free at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Mahaffey Theater. The production is funded by the city of St. Petersburg and contributors from the community.

Through her 26 years working on the pageant, Peterman has worked with more than 750 young St. Petersburg residents as they have told stories about black history, culture, religion and politics. But this year, she felt called upon to talk about youth.

"I've always been very spiritual," said Peterman, who is also an ordained minister. "I prayed and asked what I was to do for this year and I was given Suffer the Children."

The title refers to Mark 10:14, in which Jesus blesses children who are brought to him, Peterman said.

"What it means is that we should always have understanding and compassion for the child," said Teresa Riggs, who wrote and directed this year's production.

For the first time in the pageant's history, Peterman did not write the production because of medical issues. Instead, she entrusted the role to Riggs, who wrote a story about a family going through a marital separation.

The production, which lasts about 21/2 hours, focuses on how the family deals with the stressful situation, specifically the strain it places on the relationship between the teenage son and his father. Throughout the story, the son learns he needs to act as a friend to his father.

"It's a celebration of love," said Riggs, who works as a teaching partner at Clearview Elementary School.

The 30 young adults in the cast have practiced three hours every Saturday morning for the past five months. Through the process, they have learned about their history and how to better express themselves in a theatrical setting, Riggs said.

"We talk about our lines and we help to give understanding," Riggs said. "It's nice to see the children actually taking charge of the stage. They have ownership here."

The pageant was started in the late 1970s to give young people in St. Petersburg an opportunity to express themselves artistically. Although Pinellas County schools had been integrated, black students were not included in extracurricular organizations, Peterman said.

"We started out when nothing was happening," she said. "They had integrated, but they had not put African-American children into the bands and the choirs. . . . We really should have been put out of business a long time ago."

But the pageant has continued to help black people learn about their history, a topic which has often been overlooked in schools, Peterman said. She said students who had graduated her program aced college history tests because of what they learned during the pageant.

"African-Americans have to delve into their history a little more," Peterman said. "They needed to know where they came from. You're standing on somebody's bloody shoulders. You need to know how you got there."

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