On The Scene with Bianca Phillips at youth program Graffitti Playground 

Remember My Name ...

"Let's go through the Thriller routine again," an instructor says to a room of about 20 kids. "Max, cue the tape."

A curly-haired kid hits "play" on the boom box and takes his place in front of the other kids already assembled in gang formation in the large theater room at Galloway United Methodist Church in Cooper-Young. As the familiar cackle begins the song, Max throws his head back and opens his mouth. When the music starts, he acts out Michael Jackson's part while the rest of the kids become ghouls and goblins.

The youngsters are part of Graffitti Playground (spelled with two "f"s and two "t"s after the program's founder accidentally misspelled the name), a nonprofit performing-arts group for inner-city youth aged 8 to 21. Unlike similar programs, Graffitti Playground is free. The only requirements are dedication and passion.

"I started this program because there's a lot of talented kids here in Memphis, but there aren't very many outlets for them for free," says founder DeWayne Hambrick. "Normally, you'd have to go to a studio for these services and pay an arm and a leg."

Hambrick is no stranger to the performing arts. In high school, he landed a part on Disney's teen dance show, Kids Incorporated. He spent the last 10 years on tour, performing roles in Barney and The Wiggles.

"Every time I'd come back to Memphis, there was just something missing," says Hambrick. "But instead of complaining about it, I decided to do something."

For many of these kids, performing is more than just a hobby, so Hambrick and his eight choreographers (some of whom are students such as Max) teach the kids as though they are attending a professional school. He says he styled the program after the movie Fame and hopes to offer kids a "New York-style experience" by making them work hard to keep their spot on the team.

Every time he holds auditions, each student has to try out all over again, and while he never turns anyone away, they can be bumped down in placement.

"I'm tough on them, and the teachers are tough, but at the same time, they know I truly care about them," says Hambrick.

And it's obvious that he does care. In the music room, about seven kids are talking, and Hambrick asks them to sing a song. One of the girls opens her mouth, and the sound that comes out is so smooth, it could rival any American Idol. Hambrick beams like a proud parent.

The kids are preparing for a July 9th performance of a musical called Big Mama's Birthday at Mitchell High School. They'll also be performing Little Shop of Horrors in the fall. 

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