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The Performance of Living

The setting: An April fundraising gala at Lincoln Center. Above the stage hangs a sepia headshot of Anne Frank projected on a giant screen. 450 guests look on.

The action: An assemblage of black and Jewish teenage singers and musicians form a semicircle below the screen while down stage a young black woman performs a monologue from the Dutch girl’s diary. The players then break into song, first a rap and then a Hebrew melody.

The audience: young and old, rich and poor, black, white, Asian, Latino, Jewish and everything in between. The girls and women sport floor-length gowns and cocktail dresses while the men are decked out in tuxedos and dapper dark suits. They are donors, volunteers, committed contributors and program participants in the All Stars Project, Inc., a non-profit organization that creates educational and performing arts activities for thousands of poor and minority young people in New York City, Newark, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area (allstars.org).

The director: Gabrielle Kurlander, dressed in a lilac silk organza confection, presides over this unlikely performance as president and chief executive officer of the All Stars, which sponsors community and experimental theatre, provides leadership training and pursues volunteer initiatives that aim to build and strengthen this country’s poorest communities.

Since Kurlander took the helm in 1990, the organization’s annual budget has grown from $200,000 to $7 million, entirely from private funding sources. And while Kurlander undoubtedly has a way about her when it comes to raising money, she says she couldn’t do it for just any group. “The All Stars brings development to poor kids and poor communities, and when you see that experience, when you are a part of that,” Kurlander says “you are deeply inspired to do everything you can to expand it and to keep growing and to reach more and more people.”

Kurlander joined the All Stars as a volunteer and budding political activist in the mid-1980s when she was pursuing an acting career—and has been hooked ever since. Creating programs for underserved and overlooked people and neighborhoods is Kurlander’s passion. “We live in a diverse and multifaceted society, but we just don’t hear the variety of voices there are,” Kurlander explains. The All Stars is mostly dedicated to poor and minority communities “because they’ve been left out, and not given opportunities to develop and grow and to have something to say.”

The inspiration: At her Ithaca, N.Y. high school, Kurlander recalls seeing poor students who were teased and treated poorly by their wealthier classmates, something that has stayed with her. “I was outraged as a young person by how cruel people were,” says Kurlander. “I thought, there’s something wrong with this. This isn’t how the world should be.”

At about the same time, Kurlander’s mother, Judith Levy- Kurlander, a poet and political progressive, was touring synagogues and Jewish community centers in New York and New Jersey, performing a collection of monologues she had penned in the voices of biblical women who she felt hadn’t had their fair say in the original text. She endowed Sarah, Rebecca, Ruth, Lot’s wife and others with words to better express their circumstances. “I think she taught me something about people who didn’t have a voice,” Kurlander says, “and what I’ve dedicated my life to is using performance to give people a voice.”

Those many performances get staged in plays at All Stars headquarters on 42nd Street in Manhattan and at talent shows produced by young people in the poorest communities in the United States. They get staged in the corporate offices of Fortune 1000 firms where executives train young leaders to develop their professional “performances.” They get staged at workshops that bring together black, Latino and Jewish youth and at community centers where New York City police officers and young black men do improvisational theater exercises and then improvise a conversation together.