Amazing, caring Grace Chapman ...
A Guyanese dramatist with a burden for reaching persons with special needs By Claudette Earle
Guyana Chronicle
July 4, 2004

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WHILE conducting a workshop for special needs children in St. Lucia earlier this year, Grace Chapman experienced an astonishing moment. A young lad, whom instructors had great difficulty in teaching to descend stairs, startled everyone by running down the stairs - backwards! Whether his motor skills are wired differently to other persons, or he possesses an exceptional sense of balance and movement, this young boy, who had problems learning basic, everyday tasks, was a superb exponent at an improbable feat. And in a way, this boy's unusual skill could be a kind of metaphor for Grace Chapman's current research journey, which sees her retracing her steps from the halls of academia in the United States of America through some territories of the Caribbean and, finally, back to her hometown, Linden, where two decades ago she began her career as a dramatist.

A daughter of the respected Chapman clan of Linden, Grace Chapman can be remembered for writing, producing and playing the lead roles in "The Green Bottle", a play about spirit possession and Guyanese folklore, and "The Will". Both plays were staged to avid audiences at the National Cultural Centre in the early 1980s. That was a time when a brash and talented breed of young dramatists began upturning the appeal of the staid and traditional Theatre Guild Playhouse by penning plays with exciting and contemporary themes that spoke directly to the "masses". Playwright and fiction writer Harold Bascom with such productions as `The Barrel' catered unabashedly to the ordinary folk, who sought more than a dollop of comic relief in those desperate times of economic stringencies, various forms of restrictions and 'bannings' of food items and other goodies.

Today, Grace Chapman is back in her homeland, where she continues to research as well as teach and conduct training projects for special needs children and also for the teachers and caregivers of special needs institutions. Her current work is sponsored through the auspices of Omai Gold Mines Limited, a fact for which she is profoundly grateful.

Grace holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Theatre Arts from Howard University's Department of Fine Arts. She recently read for a Masters in Education at New York University's School of Education. Describing herself as an 'Arts in Education' specialist, Grace Chapman is pursuing comparative research regarding the effectiveness of drama and other art forms when used to enhance the educational, emotional and social development of children in the Caribbean and the United States of America, especially those children with special needs.

Launched last year in New York, Grace's Arts in Education research project had so intrigued educators in the Caribbean, especially those who have to monitor youngsters, who are physically handicapped or are mentally challenged, that she was invited to hold seminars in various territories.

Already, Grace has conducted workshops at the Marion William Center for Handicapped Children, Turks and Caicos Islands; The Hope Valley Experimental School in Jamaica; the Dunnottar School for the Mentally Handicapped in St Lucia; the Lady Hochoy Day School and the Princess Elizabeth School for the Handicapped in Trinidad and Tobago.

Since arriving back home in April this year, Grace has been holding workshops at the Linden Centre for Disabled Children and the Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre in Georgetown. At all of these institutions, Grace has been working with special needs children as well as with teachers and other persons, who have to interact with these youngsters.

A petite woman, Grace's unassuming bearing and warm personality belie the depth of her scholarship and the range of her artistic repertoire. And when she wraps her head, she reminds one of a younger Maya Angelou, the American writer and poet. But this Guyanese lady playwright carries a mental burden and an emotional conviction for specific members of the human race who, as a result of circumstances not of their own making, are restricted from participating fully in life's bounties. These are the children with special needs.

Why the concern and emphasis on special needs children?

Grace Chapman replies: "Because many children with special needs are not understood, not just here in the Caribbean, but also in the United States and other developed countries. It is my view that as a group, children with special needs have been neglected in many ways. Some of them keep wondering why it is that they are disabled, or handicapped. In some places, people don't even think that these youngsters have civil rights like the rest of humanity.

In recent years, there has been a lot of emphasis placed on finding ways to help these kids acquire some sort of learning even if it is only to help them to function as normal as possible.

"Research has revealed that many special needs children are more likely to learn some basic skills through the mechanism of art. Not only do they acquire some measure of elementary education, but through applied art, these children eventually become more socially aware of their environment, and of their place in that environment. I've been using drama, dance, music, mime, puppetry - whatever. And the subject areas I usually focus on are mathematics, social studies, language arts, which would include reading and writing, and science. I apply different strategies in my work with trained teachers. There are not many programmes designed to entertain as well as to stimulate the minds of special needs youngsters. More often than not, teachers and persons in charge of such facilities have some ideas and they do try to help their charges, but they do not really have any trained techniques to help them to learn in a methodical way. Of course, one drawback is the reality that in a group of special needs kids there are various levels of disability. Some children can't walk, others can't talk, some children write with their toes. And because you cannot design a programme for each child, you have to cater to a range of needs.

"I am always amazed at the way in which children respond when I begin to tell a story employing masks or hand-puppets. As soon as I begin to engage their minds, they become more attentive, even the more noisy and hyperactive kids. The other day, I was at the Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre for a session with them, and there was one little girl, who at first was not displaying any interest. I was teaching the children to make and manipulate hand puppets as part of a language arts lesson. And as we worked along, the child became totally engaged in the process. By the end of the session, she was enjoying herself as much as the other children. And earlier this year, when I visited the Dunnottar School for the Mentally Handicapped in St. Lucia, I met a boy, who was about 13 years old. The teachers told me that one of his limitations was his inability to descend the stairs in the way we do - that is going downstairs by backing the stairs. But, I soon discovered that this lad has no difficulty in running down the stairs - backwards! Now this is something that few persons could do without risking serious physical injury. Yet this boy was perfect at this stunt."

During her sojourn in the United States, Grace Chapman designed and implemented literacy enhancement programmes to train teachers in techniques utilising drama, art, music and puppetry to improve curricula and accelerate learning in under-served public schools in New York City.

"It was while teaching at Howard University's Children's Theatre (HUCT) in Washington DC that I conceptualised and scripted participatory dramas using puppets designed to sharpen reading, and the analytical and writing skills of inner city children enrolled in university-run literacy arts programmes. I also coordinated a joint 'Puppetry in Education' programme between HUCT and the Epilepsy Foundation using puppetry as a therapeutic teaching tool to educate children about epilepsy. I also directed over 30 'Arts in Education' productions in the U.S. featuring plays written and performed by general education and special education students who all participated in my workshops," Grace explained.

Grace recalls an experience she had in the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. While visiting a psychiatric facility there recently, she noticed that there were no programmes for the teenage girls.

"You know, they were just milling around aimlessly, doing nothing in particular. I thought to myself that as these youngsters reach adulthood, they would just be transferred to the adult section of the institution and be forced to live out the rest of their natural lives in hopelessness. So I asked the person in charge: What is going on? Is this a life for these girls? What plans do you have for them? No art, no anything?"

"Later, I was privileged to hold a creative arts interactive session with the teenagers and they were very responsive. They were happy that someone was willing to sit with them and engage their minds, while helping them to build self-esteem."

Grace Chapman's advice for helping children and youths with special needs become more socially aware and more physically independent has the merit of being applicable to any person or group of persons experiencing difficulties coping with life itself.

Grace Chapman (front row, second left) poses with members of Theatre Four, with whom she staged a production in this Off Broadway Theatre in New York.

"Do not focus on what someone can't do. Instead, find out what they are capable of doing, and then build on that skill or talent."

Besides pursuing teaching and research programmes since returning to her homeland, Grace Chapman has staged her most recent production entitled, `Echoes of Inner Voices', which she describes as "a performing arts piece featuring a variety of poetic styles and dramatic genres, which I have explored for years".

First staged in Linden, where it reportedly played to good houses, `Echoes of Inner Voices' is scheduled to open at City Hall, Georgetown, on the evening of Sunday, July 25, 2004.