Daniel Jackson stepped on to the stage, carefully positioning pieces of the set. In a few short days, Daniel will step into the spotlight as the Penguin Project’s star — Shrek — for the musical, “Shrek Jr.” at the Ritz Theatre in downtown Brunswick.
It will be his third time performing in a Penguin Project show, a national initiative for youngsters with disabilities that’s been localized in the Golden Isles. Daniel, who suffered a traumatic brain injury linked to Meningitis as an infant, has relished sharing his talents and meeting new friends during the process.
“It’s just a fun experience,” the 25-year-old said. “And my best friend, Will (Ours) is playing Donkey, so we’ll be best friends on and off the stage.”
Jackson’s mother, Allyson, said the two actually met during a previous Penguin Project and formed a friendship that’s been incredibly important in both of their lives.
“They have all made a lot of friends here. And this year’s play is just so perfect ... We’re so excited,” Allyson said.
Just a few short years ago, Allyson Jackson had never heard of the Penguin Project. But that changed when her co-worker brought the national program, which began in Illinois, to her attention. Developed by Andrew Morgan, a professor of pediatrics, the project allows young people — ages 10-25 — with developmental disabilities to explore their creative talents through performance.
Jackson thought it would be a great fit for the Golden Isles. It took some time, but she eventually rounded up a lunch that included members of the Illinois project and Heather Heath, executive director of Golden Isles Arts and Humanities in Brunswick. Together, they decided to give the show a try, motivated by the idea of giving those with special needs a place to shine.
“I know how hard it is for families who know their child has great abilities but most times they don’t get the recognition. They are ‘on the team’ — on the bench, they are ‘in the choir’ – in the back or off to the side. They are invited but not really included,” she said.
“It is hard to watch your child be treated that way — and it is mostly unintentional — after all ‘they are on the team.’ When I learned about this program, I knew that this would be a place for special needs children to shine and show their own star quality. I have always only wanted that for my own child.”
The reception of the first year’s show in 2017 was “Annie Jr.,” proved that Allyson was not alone. The cast, mentors and volunteers turned out in droves, as did audiences who packed the house each night. Businesses in the community lined up to be sponsors. In fact, Allyson was blown away by the community’s reaction.
“Oh my heavens, we could not have gotten off the ground without the good people in our community. I would (and will) speak to any group anywhere to share our story and ask for support. At one such opportunity, an elderly lady came us to me and pushed a $10 bill in my hand,” Allyson said.
“She said ‘This is all I have, but I want the children to have it.’ Yes, I cried. And yes, $10 helps immensely. Would we love to be given a lump sum to be able to not have to worry about ongoing sustainability — absolutely — but until that fairy godmother or father finds us — I will take any and all $10 bills.”
The first year was followed by a similar response for “Disney’s Peter Pan Jr.,” in 2018. And Allyson is excited about the prospects for “Shrek the Musical Jr.,” which will open at 7 p.m. Friday at the Ritz, 1530 Newcastle St, Brunswick. There will also be shows at 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets may be purchased at www.goldenislesarts.org or by calling 912-262-6934.
As one who has watched the artists grow over the past two years, Allyson cannot wait for audiences to see the progression this go-around. She is hopeful the community will turn out again to support all of the effort of the young actors.
“Our artists are different,” she said. “Our artists are special, and their everyday challenges are what make them strong. You would think that Heather and I would have grown use to our Penguins by now — but we both keep tissue nearby. We are so proud of each artist and their abilities and their strengths and our mentors who help pull out those strengths — we end many a practice — weepy, good weepy. We love all our penguins.”
Coastal People appears Tuesdays. Contact Lindsey Adkison at email@example.com or at 265-8320, ext. 346 to suggest a person for a column.