As a pupil at Collins Elementary School in the late 1950s, Melvin was known as “Pee Boy” because he had a habit of wetting his clothes.
“I don’t know how much that devastated him,” said Butler. “I never got the chance to say I was sorry. Maybe I could have done something to stop it.”
Butler paid tribute to Melvin by dedicating his play Pickin’ to him, and apologizing to him on the opening page. Melvin died of a gunshot wound as a young man.
Written in the late 1990s, Pickin’ deals with bullying in a high school and the tragic results that make the headlines.
The Augusta Mini Theatre Inc. Community Arts and Life Skills School will present the play for two weekends.
Cast members said the play deals with a timely subject.
“It affects us. It’s what’s going on now,” said Diamond Mitchell, a 16-year-old John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School student who plays Fatima. “It sends a powerful message.”
And that message hasn’t been lost on any of the young actors. It has shown them something about themselves, they said.
“I have brought this back to real life, and I realized I have done some of this,” said Natalie Goins, a 17-year-old T.W. Josey High School student who plays the role of Pat. “I can’t go back and do the things I did before. We are examples,”
Goins isn’t the only one who has been impacted by the play. Other cast members echo her sentiments.
“It hit a place in my heart,” said Jalen Frasher, another T.W. Josey High School student. Frasher plays Warren. “I have to prevent this from happening.”
One of the performance dates for Pickin’ is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and that’s not a coincidence. Pickin’s message links arms with that of Dr. King’s.
“It hits home with Dr. King’s message,” said Diamond Robinson, a 16-year-old John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School student who plays Samantha. “He taught us not to discriminate against each other. The play is about not discriminating against others.”
“It’s not just about race. It’s about anything. It’s about life,” said Goins.
As Pickin’ isn’t just a play, the Augusta Mini Theatre isn’t just about the arts. Its mission is about life as well, according to Butler, who founded the organization in 1975.
The arts had a real-life impact on him. As a child, Butler stuttered. In seventh grade, he had one line in a play, but that one line was difficult. He couldn’t get all of the words out because of his stuttering.
“On the day of the play, I didn’t stutter, and I’ve never stuttered since,” he said.
There was something magical about being on stage. It boosted his self-esteem and changed his life forever. Giving children that same type of confidence and encouraging them to achieve their dreams are some of the side effects of the arts programs at the Augusta Mini Theatre, according to former students.
“It helped me gain confidence and to go out and live my dreams,” said Daphne Chambliss, a former student. She is now a third-year medical student at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
The encouragement and support of Butler and staff members Judith Simon-Butler and Earnestine Robinson made a difference in Chambliss’ life.
“They were there to give advice,” she said. “They are an extension of my family for guidance and leadership.”
The school offers classes in drama, piano, dance and the visual arts. Butler said no child is ever turned away because of an inability to pay, and the organization relies on donations to sustain its programming.
For many years, it was located in downtown Augusta, but the organization cut the ribbon at its Deans Bridge Road building in October 2008. The $2.3 million arts center and school features dance studios and a music wing as well as the Judith Simon Drama Studio, a black box theater.
Funds from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax as well as private grants and donations were used to finance the building of the school, which currently serves about 130 students.
Butler said there are plans to expand the space and build a 250-seat theater.