Jaden Piner started acting because his grandma made him do it.
She was preaching at church one Sunday and needed a visual element for her sermon. She tapped the then fifth grader to act out her words on the pulpit.
“She was talking about when you overcome certain struggles,” said Jaden, 13. “So I had a brick in a bag and I had to act like I couldn't pick it up because it was a struggle.”
After that moment, and flattery from parishioners impressed with his performance, Jaden decided he would audition for the drama program at Norland Middle.
“Everyone said I was good enough to be in a movie,” said Jaden.
Jaden’s best friend Alex Hibbert, 12, always knew that the performing arts was his thing, but he was a bit of a class clown and his grades were just OK.
Tanisha Cidel, the drama teacher at Norland cut a deal with Alex: make more A’s and B’s to secure a spot in drama. Alex delivered.
Jaden and Alex both star in the critically acclaimed movie "Moonlight," which recently cleaned up at the Gotham Independent Film Awards in New York.
The film won best screenplay, best feature, a special jury award for best ensemble and the audience award.
"Moonlight" is set in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. Alex plays a shy young version of the lead character Chiron, who is just starting to figure out his sexuality.
Jaden plays young Kevin, Chiron’s only childhood friend. In one scene, Kevin tries to teach Chiron how to stand up to the bullies at school.
Jaden and Alex bask in their new found stardom, but both seventh graders say they wouldn’t have made it onto the big screen without their drama teacher Ms. Cidel, who students also call their “drama mama.”
Cidel has a cameo in the movie as the boys’ principal, but she says her real dream job is teaching.
She was in this same drama program when she was in middle school and it’s at Norland her love for the arts really developed—and she said she can see the same happening for her students.
“I absolutely love what I do. It’s a blessing to me to see them get it and to see them grow,” said Cidel.
On a recent afternoon, her seventh grade class rehearsed "Luck Be A Lady" from the musical "Guys And Dolls" for their December Winter Fantasy performance.
The drama class at Norland Middle is in an old science lab. A large empty space in front of the student’s desks is also the stage for rehearsal.
“You must be able to follow directions.” Cidel told the class as she rearranged the young performers. “If you don’t follow direction the director will do what?”
The students replied in unison: “Fire you.”
“This is part of the process you must have, the discipline, guys,” Ms. Cidel continued. “You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t have discipline you will go nowhere.”
Jaden, who was rehearsing the musical with his class, said the discipline Ms. Cidel instills in her students played a big role in him landing a part in "Moonlight."
“I probably wouldn’t have been able to memorize my lines if I didn’t have discipline,” Jaden said.
Trinity Garrison, 13, another of Ms.Cidel’s students, said she loves that Ms. Cidel integrates other school subjects into drama.
“Let’s say you learned about history in civics class,” Trinity said. “You come to drama, you learn about it in a more fun way. Not just the teacher telling you to write down note but you actually get to sing and dance about it. “
Cidel said she uses drama as an entry point to history, current events and as motivation for her kids.
“I think so many people think of the academics as reading and math, and that is true,” said Cidel. “However, there are some people on this earth who are built differently…so they're more creative and we must cultivate wherever they are.”
Nyomi Ramjohn, 13, adds drama class improved her vocabulary and her self-esteem.
“She’s not only teaching you acting, singing, or dancing,” said Nyomi of Ms. Cidel. “She’s teaching you life lessons that we can take into our adult years.”
Students describe their “drama mama” as no-nonsense, but also very nurturing.
For Alex, who plays young Chiron in "Moonlight," Ms. Cidel is the real star.
“She's just a loving person and she shows it a lot,” he said. “And when she’s strict she doesn't do it because she doesn't like us; she does it because she loves us.”
IF YOU GO
Miami Norland Theater Program's Winter Fantasy
When: 7 p.m. December 20th and 21st
Where: 1235 NW 192nd Terrace, Miami Gardens
For more information call (305) 653-1210