“Everyone on my street knows when you hear guns, you gotta duck, dodge, and roll.” — Antonio, age 9
Heartbreaking truths like Antonio’s, along with dozens of other “life lessons,” are learned each day by children living in underprivileged urban areas rife with poverty, violence, and drugs. In a shocking series from VML/Kansas City and Station director Seyi Peter-Thomas, “educational” songs were derived from the harrowing, and unfortunately common, experiences of Youth Ambassadors participants, like what to do to stave off hunger or in the event of a shoot-out. To amplify the message, the team tapped into a well-known childhood medium — a colorful sing-along puppet show — to craft a series of shorts named “Lessons from My Neighborhood.”
“I knew instantly when I read the concept that it would be a very exciting tightrope walk,” Seyi says. “It was crucial that we struck the exact right tone to tell these all-too-serious stories in a genre that we normally think of as light and frivolous.” At first glance, the vibrant colors and playful melodies appear aimed at children in the same way as an innocent segment on manners or the alphabet, but this series flips that trope on its head.
With the help of A-list puppeteers and the catchy, upbeat tunes, there is a stark contrast crafted through the juxtaposition of the positivity of typical American children’s programming and the grim realities learned by the large demographic of kids trapped in a cycle of poverty. “I grew up with kids in similar situations to these so I felt a strong connection to the material and a responsibility to represent these situations in a way that felt respectful and didn’t sugar coat the issues,” Seyi adds. “It’s all the levity you would expect with an episode of Sesame Street, but with a very grim edge to it because, for the kids we’re talking about, these lessons are life and death.”
The creation of the films relied heavily on set design and lighting to strike the proper balance between the dark content and light presentation. “The sets are still very much in a puppet-show kind of world, but there’s also an element of real life grit to them. The lighting is more contrasty than what we’d expect from a children’s show. The world is fake, but the grime is real. Perhaps this is the street that’s around the corner from Sesame Street — It’s the neighborhood they don’t normally show on TV. We started our shoot day with the “Hunger” scene, and for the first few setups everyone was laughing and singing along. Then, by the time we got to the girl sitting back at the table and swallowing air, the vibe on set had changed dramatically. I looked over at my script supervisor and she had tears in her eyes. I thought ‘Ok, we’re onto something.’ “
The Kansas City Youth Ambassadors program seeks to change these patterns by raising awareness and putting a spotlight on the children and teens fighting to make their voices heard. As such, the video series was unveiled at a fundraising event in Kansas City. Branded as the lessons that no one should have to learn, the audience was visibly more and more uncomfortable with each passing film — exactly as intended by the creators. Watching the films is nowhere near as uncomfortable as having to learn those lessons.
“We were literally sewing the puppets together as the news of the Parkland school shooting broke. I think we all took a big pause and asked ourselves ‘Can we still sing about ‘Duck, Dodge, and Roll’ now? Is this in bad taste?’ Ultimately, though, the conversation comes back to the kids we’re serving. For them, these issues are as relevant as they ever were, and that has to be the North Star.” The audience is meant to understand that something is very wrong, and the question is: How do we make it right?