By Ginnie Graham news columnist. April 22, 2017. Photo Credit: Tulsa World
After 17 years of north Tulsa youth entertaining crowds in Pocket Full of Hope productions, one alumnus has reached the heights of a Broadway cast.
Two months after Willie Hill graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma with a musical theater degree, he landed a spot in the touring company of “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical on Tour.”
Hill, 23, has a swing role as one of The Drifters, meaning he is responsible for singing each of the four tracks on songs, including “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Up on the Roof.”
He has been on stages in New York City; Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; Syracuse, New York; Omaha, Nebraska; and Schenectady, New York. The “Beautiful” tour is on its North American leg and will go to Canada next month.
“It’s an amazing experience, and I’m so grateful,” Hill said in a telephone interview. “In one way, I can’t believe I’m here, but at the same time, I can. I worked hard to get here. I know this is tangible — for me and for other kids.”
Getting focus: Hill joined the nonprofit A Pocket Full of Hope when he was about 10 years old.
His family moved around a bit in his early childhood but settled in Tulsa by his older elementary years. He went to Academy Central Elementary, Wilson Middle School and Booker T. Washington High School, where he became drum major of the school’s popular marching band and graduated in 2012.
Hill describes his family, including his parents Tarina and Jesse Foster, as artistic and creative. His uncle, Lester Shaw, is the founder of A Pocket Full of Hope and encouraged his participation.
“Music was just a part of my life growing up,” Hill said. “My family was very musical, and I could sing. I saw Pocket Full of Hope as a way to help me focus. I love performing and singing, but I needed to focus.”
Shaw remembers Hill being a bit of a novice as a youngster.
“He didn’t know how to dance,” Shaw said with a chuckle. “But he finally learned the dance to ‘Thriller,’ and it all changed for him.”
Hill recalls vividly the moves to that Michael Jackson hit.
“That was a big accomplishment,” he said. “When I learned it, it was my pocket number and I’d go to rehearsals with it.”
Through the years, Hill stuck with the program.
“I learned time management and technical skills,” he said. “We had a video room for film and learned how to design things. Once, we had a knitting class. Everything you could think of, we did.”
This flexibility came in handy during college when he was in the musical comedy “No, No Nanette.”
“I’d never tapped a day in my life, and I had to tap,” Hill said. “So I learned to tap while doing the show. Pocket Full of Hope helped me learn to catch on to new things quickly. So, even without formal dance training, I was able to work it out.”
Hill originally majored in political science, but his call to perform couldn’t be ignored, so he changed his major and graduated in December. He had planned to be a performer on a cruise line, but before that happened his agent called with the “Beautiful” audition in New York City. He became part of the cast March 13.
“The tour is great,” he said. “Everybody in the company is very nice and very supportive. I like living out of hotels and seeing different places.”
He credits the north Tulsa nonprofit for inspiring this career direction.
“That was the only thing around like that with all the different areas — music, theater, dance and film,” Hill said. “A Pocket Full of Hope wasn’t just about dancing. I got to learn a lot of different things, build up a lot of different skills and form the basis of the craft.”
‘Building a relationship’: Pocket Full of Hope was founded in 2000 by Shaw to give fine arts opportunities for youth in north Tulsa.
A Tulsa native with a master’s degree in counseling and an educational doctorate, Shaw designed the program to add in life lessons of responsibility and leadership. It also has a reading program, academic supports and field trips. Pocket Full of Hope has a 100 percent high school graduation rate.
“We let them know how to learn and give them strategies to learn,” Shaw said. “Our goal is to have a relationship with each child. When kids know you love and respect them, they will work their butt off for you.”
Although Hill is the first program alum to perform on a Broadway stage, Shaw said the entire group of students has talent.
“I see it in all of them,” Shaw said. “It’s having a balance of having your issues and having talent. We allow kids room for their issues, and that’s been one of the things that’s helped us all.
“One parent recently said I spoil these kids. I view it as building a relationship. I’ve been there and remember people who put their arm around me and encouraged me.”
In 2008, the nonprofit purchased the Big 10 Ballroom at 1624 E. Apache Ave. to renovate and use as its own theater and community program.
It was built in 1948 in the art deco streamline style by Lonnie Williams, the second black officer on the Tulsa police force. It became a stop on the “Chitlin Circuit,” which included venues in the South, Midwest and East considered safe for African-American performers. It closed in the mid-’60s and fell into disrepair.
It’s been a lot slower to raise money than expected. Shaw said about $415,000 is needed to finish the heating and air installation, electrical work and the cosmetic remodel.
For years, the nonprofit has been performing wherever it can find an affordable stage — be it school, church, library or club. The nonprofit has a core group of students of about 37, but a production could swell the number to 150.
Hill returns when he can to visit Pocket Full of Hope and meet with its students.
“It’s such a great program. People fail to realize what they have and what you could build from it,” Hill said. “It’s all about networking and making relationships. When I come back and teach kids, I want to inspire them about what they can do in the arts. I want them to know that wherever they go, they need to be present in the moment.”