When Harlem-bred actor and social entrepreneur Shabaya Clark walked through the doors of a lecture hall at Rockland Community College to take an “Acting 101” class years ago, he was looking for an easy credit to fulfill his graduation requirements. Little did he know—after the course was completed—he would walk away with a deeper understanding of how therapeutic and powerfully transformative the arts were. The realization is something that inspired Clark to not only pursue a career in acting, but to utilize it as a tool to empower at-risk youth through his nonprofit organization Drama Free!.
Clark came of age during the peak of the 1980s crack epidemic. His neighborhood was ravaged by drugs and crime. The vivid memories of abandoned buildings and stepping over drug vials on his way to school remain etched in his mind. Clark—who was raised by a single mother along with his nine siblings—often felt left in the shadows of his brothers and sisters when it came to getting the parental guidance he needed in his household. During his formative years, he would collect an array of different movies, from vintage 1950s films to cult classics. He grew an admiration for Denzel Washington who he says was the only positive Black male representation he had in his life. “I was drawn to films with great storylines and great acting,” he told NewsOne. “Seeing him in movies and on television was my representation of what a strong Black man was since I didn’t have any examples.”
Clark used the films he watched to mentally escape the perils of the impoverished environment he was living in, but they weren’t enough to prevent him from going down the wrong path. Due to the lack of attention, he turned to the streets to fill a void. Throughout his adolescence, he had stints in juvenile detention centers and group homes. It was at the Dobbs Ferry-based Children’s Village group home where he decided he wanted to change his life for the better. Inspired by his mentor Tommy King—a youth advocate who worked at the facility—Clark wanted to work towards being a positive example for other teens who had come from similar upbringings and experienced setbacks.
After discovering his passion for acting in college, Clark decided to devote his time to his craft. “Acting became therapeutic for me and it made me see things in a different light,” he said. “It was acting that prompted me to separate myself from certain people who were going down the wrong path. I used acting as a way to channel my aggressiveness.” He started taking workshops at the New Federal Theatre in New York. His journey came full-circle when he landed his first acting gig as the star of a play at the Black Box Theatre in Harlem. He then took on several roles in different plays and short films.
Clark set out to take his love for the arts beyond the stage and revisited his mission of extending help to at-risk youth. In 2018, he launched Drama Free!. The organization—which is centered on theatre arts and education—takes a wholistic approach to empowering children and teens. Many of the program participants are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorders, homelessness and other issues. Aside from acting workshops, the organization provides yoga, fencing, dancing classes and other activities as therapeutic outlets for youth. Through the workshops Clark and the other instructors aim to teach youngsters how to channel negative energy and develop a solid sense of self-esteem. “Seeing what the arts did for me, I knew that it could do the same for others,” he said. “It plays a part in helping kids cope with coming from dysfunctional environments.” Among some of the notable people who have participated in leading the organization’s programs and workshops include actors Harry Lennix, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Jimmy Gary Jr. To date the nonprofit—which runs programs throughout New York State—has served over 400 youths.
Studies have revealed that arts education programs can change the trajectory of a child’s life, however, initiatives surrounding the arts lack funding nationwide. Clark—who is dedicated to giving at-risk youth the attention and guidance that he didn’t receive as a child—says the lack of investment in youth arts initiatives throughout the country should be addressed. “There’s a big need for programs, especially in communities that don’t have access or resources that connect them to the arts,” stated Clark. “It always comes down to having an outlet and giving children a voice.”
As far as what’s on the horizon for Drama Free!, Clark plans on expanding into other communities across the country.