On Thursday, June 3, the UCSB Arts & Lectures Race to Justice series comes to the West Wind Drive-In for a screening of We Are the Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest. This inspiring documentary film directed by Amy Schatz and executive produced by Mahershala Ali was released in 2020 and features young students from Oakland who are empowered through the MLK Oratorical Festival, a “public speaking competition featuring poetry and speeches inspired by the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
The festival is a tradition that the community of Oakland has looked forward to annually for more than four decades, and it involves students from grades pre-K through 12. After competing for first place at their individual schools, winning students go on to perform poetry, speeches, and monologues in the citywide championships. The “Oratorical,” as it is known, empowers kids and shows them what they can accomplish through hard work and practice.
The documentary follows several students from their earliest attempts to the grand finale on the main stage. They are all memorable, and none more so than young Gregory Payton, who is seen performing the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech, which is sometimes known as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Delivered the day before he was assassinated and filled with examples of King’s greatest oratory, King’s speech gives this young man a powerful platform for his own skills as a communicator.
Payton is the son and grandson of preachers, and he clearly loves public speaking. In an interview about the process of memorizing the speech, Payton shows how much he has learned by offering an insightful account of King’s philosophy of nonviolence. Payton and the other speakers rehearse multiple times a day for weeks in order to memorize their speeches, and all of them come across as impressively passionate about that work.
Teachers, parents, and coaches also play important roles in the contest and in the film. We hear Winston Williams, an educator from Markham School, saying that the performer’s posture is just as important as the words. How they hold and carry themselves while speaking has a powerful impact on the judges and the audience.
Even though it’s a competition, the Oratorical is more about community support and appreciation than rivalries or keeping score. Many of the contestants are children of color, immigrants, women, or from other marginalized groups; it’s thrilling to see the way they all stand and give powerful speeches. Maybe it is the energy of Oakland within them, a city that has been known for pushing the boundaries of social justice work. This festival is just one example of how that community honors diversity and activism.
The fact that the Oratorical focuses on the words of Martin Luther King means that the contestants have lots of great material to choose from and they learn about Black history at the same time. This is another way that the festival is not only for the kids. When their friends, families, and teachers gather to watch them perform, many become tearful at seeing young children connect so brilliantly with historical events and figures. Despite the centuries of displacement, enslavement, and discrimination the Black community has faced, these Oakland parents can witness the joy of their African ancestry manifest in the children’s performances today. The screening at the West Wind on Thursday, June 3, is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis, with the film scheduled to begin at 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.
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