‘Black Panther’ gets a musical premiere at Willingboro High School

A faith-based community theater company in New Jersey has turned the 2018 blockbuster superhero movie into a youth-empowering production.

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Students performing as Queen Ramonda and her son, T’Challa, on stage during a rehearsal for the 'Black Panther' musical at Willingboro High School. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Students performing as Queen Ramonda and her son, T’Challa, on stage during a rehearsal for the 'Black Panther' musical at Willingboro High School. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

When “Black Panther” was released in 2018, it broke box office records and became a global cinema event.

It was also a big deal to Diana Tachie-Mensah, who was in middle school at the time.

“It was important for me to see a film where Black people are brought to empowerment, they are uplifted, with no bashing of us,” she said.

It’s also a really cool movie.

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“It’s a superhero film, and I love superhero films,” she said.

Now a sophomore at Burlington Township High School, Tachie-Mensah is playing Nakia, the warrior-spy who helps T’Challa (Black Panther) regain the throne of Wakanda, in what they believe is the premiere production of a musical based on the movie.

“The Power Within: Black Panther the Musical,” will be performed this weekend only at Willingboro High School. It was created and produced by Faith In Action, a youth support ministry operating in Willingboro. (It is not associated with the national organization with the same name.)

Founded by Amy Dean in 1994, Faith In Action provides young adults assistance on many fronts, including mentorship, education, job training, and HIV/AIDS prevention.

A big component of the organization is performing arts. Dean wrangles several dozen teenagers and young adults through two or three major productions a year, plus a year-round touring company that performs skits with anti-drug, anti-bullying and anti-violence messaging for local schools and churches.

“It really builds self-esteem in young people,” Dean said about theater arts. “It gives them a platform to express themselves, to learn new skills, and also to be seen in a positive light.”

“Black Panther” provides a perfect vehicle for Dean’s mission. Made with a predominantly Black cast and crew, the movie featured characters with deep cultural roots who use sophisticated futuristic technology and embody noble and empowering traits. Included among those is gender parity: The women in the story get to be as powerful as the men.

“It made me think: Do these kids know how strong they are? That they have the power in themselves to change the world and themselves?” said Dean. She wrote 14 songs based on the lessons and inspirations she perceived in the movie, forming the basis of “The Power Within.”

“The songs are about coming out of the shadows, not hiding behind shadows,” said Emmanuel Tucker, a junior at Freedom Prep Charter School in Camden who plays T’Challa. “Coming out as your true self. Don’t let your culture hold you back, but use your culture to define who you really are.”

Even the villain has a lesson to teach. Erik Killmonger, the archrival of the Black Panther, fights tooth and nail to acquire the crown to aggressively position Wakanda as a world power. On the other hand, T’Challa (Black Panther) has a more peaceful agenda.

Both have heroic appeal.

“[Killmonger] is from a broken home, poverty-stricken,” said Arrington Alexander Crawford, a graduate of Willingboro High (Class of ’06) who came back to play Killmonger. “But he realizes he has the possibility to be king. Unfortunately, he has the right motive but the wrong method. He’s a mirror image of some kids in our cities.”

“This is the difference between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Dean said. “They had similar goals, but different ways of getting to it.”

For a community theater performance, “The Power Within” has high production values. Fully costumed and set-designed, the musical features large ensemble numbers in which nearly the entire cast is choreographed onstage in complex, rhythmic dance routines.

During one number, Dean said, Willingboro’s community leaders and elected officials will appear onstage, en masse, to show support for the players.

“It’s called ‘One Single Tribe.’ They will all come in and stand on stage and be the village,” Dean said. “It makes all of us a family. The responsibility is not just for the teachers, not just for the parents, it becomes for the community as well.”

“Willingboro is definitely supporting this,” she said.

“The Power Within: Black Panther the Musical” will be performed Friday and Saturday, Feb. 28 and 29, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 1, at 5 p.m. in the auditorium of Willingboro High School,  20 S. John F. Kennedy Way, Willingboro, N.J. 08046.

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