Every Thursday night, 60 to 70 teenagers representing 10 high schools from throughout the city file into Spirit Square to work together on a yearlong theater project.
The teens come from a array of backgrounds and places and have diverse talents and personalities, but what they create together is far more uniting than the differences that divide them.
That creative solidarity and positive energy is what prompted Nikkeia Wiler, 35, to start the Charlotte Chapter of City at Peace, which this year changed its name to The Possibility Project.
The Possibility Project, which has its headquarters in New York City, operates yearlong programs that, according to its website, "empower teenagers to create a better world."
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Charlotte's Possibility Project is one of five in U.S. cities (the others are in New York City, Los Angeles, Rochester, N.Y., and Baton Rouge) as well as two in South Africa and Israel.
Each Possibility Project brings together diverse groups of youths who go through an intense, yearlong creative process to write an original musical.
The name change is meant to reflect the fact that "the possibilities are endless," said Wiler. "Kids meet other kids they would never have met but for this experience, and learn how to express themselves creatively," she said.
Wiler was so moved by a TPP performance she saw in Washington, D.C., in 1997 that she quit her job as special events coordinator for Charlotte Repertory Theatre and started the Charlotte TPP to help "Charlotte's young people transition into adulthood in a meaningful and creative way."
The Plaza Midwood resident works with eight school partners in Charlotte to recruit students from theater, music and dance classes based on recommendations by teachers and current TPP cast members. Each year's recruits must then prepare a three-minute audition that reveals something about themselves and showcases talents and personal revelations.
Sterling Frierson, 17, a student at Northwest School of the Arts, says he is "fascinated by what people have overcome and how they've overcome it." He, like others, said he is honored that others have shared many deeply personal experiences.
Frierson credits Wiler for creating a trusting environment that is a comfortable forum for sharing and helping him deal with his own problems.
Once the students have presented their auditions, Wiler winnows the group to the 70 who will perform at the end of the year.
Among this year's cast are students from the following CMS high schools: East Mecklenburg, Harding University, Independence, Myers Park, South Mecklenburg, Vance, Cato Middle College, KIPP Academy, Philip O. Berry Academy, Mallard Creek and South Point (in Belmont).
The students meet every Thursday evening to write a series of skits about a unifying theme.
Dylan Edwards, 17, a student at Harding University High School in his second year, appreciates the "sense of voice" TPP provides.
"We have issues that we face that need to be heard but that we're not allowed to express or discuss in a school production," said Edwards.
For Frierson, a big perk of TPP is to have an "opportunity to grow in the arts without being in a competitive environment," he said.
Wiler initially lined up two national corporate sponsors and has since developed ongoing relationships with local corporate donors. She uses the funds to provide a series of workshops throughout the year, on topics such as homelessness, gang violence and teen pregnancy, and she hires a professional choreographer, musical director and vocal coach to work with the teens' original performances.
The final production is written by a group of participants that serves as a voice for the larger group. The smaller group reviews the individual presentations recorded at each student's audition and culls themes and moments to create scenes.
The final production, said Wiler, is designed to include several large group numbers as well as "many individual moments to shine."
Carolyn Aycock, 17, a South Mecklenburg High School student, credits TPP with helping her overcome her shyness. "I have met people I would never have met otherwise," she said.
Genesis Soto, 15, a Vance High School student who wowed her peers with her original rap song during her audition, speaks for many when she explains: "At TPP, we can be ourselves."