Standing in the glow of the spotlight at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center, Jomar Crawford has the presence of an actor twice his age. His cadence is commanding; his diction is crisp or casual, fitting the mood of his character.
He can cry on cue.
When the 16-year-old delivers his lines, the judges at Atlanta’s True Colors Next Narrative Monologue Competition take notice. Of the more than 60 contestants who auditioned for the monologue showcase, Crawford, a sophomore at Utopian Academy for the Arts High School, was selected as the top-ranked regional winner, a victory that earned him a $600 scholarship and a spot in the finals on May 8 at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre. (Utopian Academy freshman Caleb Thomas and Jonah Slade were also semifinalists.)
His performance during his New York stage debut earned him an audition for a feature film and a college scholarship offer from a top HBCU.
“When I’m backstage, my heart is beating out of control, but when I hit the stage and stand in the lights—I’m there,” Crawford said. “My nerves get transformed into energy. I give it my all.”
Crawford, who juggles roles in feature films and in a streaming television series, is laser-focused on improving his craft. His success as an actor is being celebrated by Utopian’s Theatre Department—and its Department of Exceptional Student Education.
Diagnosed in the fourth grade as a student with special needs, Crawford spent years struggling with academic focus and recall. But not anymore. His decision to commit to acting has improved his academic performance.
“Jomar is serious about acting. He calls me every day for guidance,” said Tonia Jackson, a veteran television, film, and stage actress who heads the theatre department at Utopian Academy High. “I’ve placed his audition videos on my social media and helped him to get acting jobs. His talent is so strong that he has appeared onstage in a play with me and inspired a director to write a part for him to play in a movie.”
Once a “C-B student,” Crawford now gets A’s and B’s worthy of a spot on the honor roll.
Here’s how Crawford turned himself around: The same diligent work habits that he uses to learn his lines for auditions, to organize his practice time, to study the work of other actors, and to plot his acting career from high school to his Oscar acceptance, he applies to his studies.
“When I was at my other school, it didn’t have acting, so I didn’t really have an outlet or something that motivated me,” he said. “When I found acting, I knew it was what I wanted to do. It became my motivation. But my mother made it clear that my schoolwork comes first. That helped me to find balance.”
National research shows that students who study the arts benefit from improved verbal, reading, and math skills overall, as well as critical-thinking skills needed for analysis and problem-solving. And when students with disabilities study the arts, it can have an even greater impact in the classroom.
According to the national Learning Disability Resources Foundation, the arts “provide an excellent way (for students) to express their feelings … improve self-esteem, self-awareness, and self-expression. It engages their mind, body, spirit, and can lead to self-discovery of their emotions.”
Emery Williams, special education coordinator for Utopian agrees. “With Utopian Academy’s arts curriculum and Jomar’s participation in the drama program specifically, he has been able to fight through his self-esteem issues and his disabilities, making them abilities,” Williams said. “He is able to thrive in the classroom as general education students do.”
The special education coordinator added that some of his other exceptional students are making similar strides in their focus by creating visual art and playing golf. “Students who can’t sit still in class are focusing for long periods of time in those activities,” he said.
Crawford’s mother, Bridget Shannon of Jonesboro, has also seen the difference in her son. “Jomar has grown so much by going to Utopian Academy,” she said. “It impacts his life a lot.”
“Ms. Jackson is an amazing teacher,” Crawford said. “She is always there for me. She knows the industry and puts me in the right rooms and encourages me.”
Now, the rising junior is contemplating college.
“College is on the table for me,” he said. “I want to get that higher education experience and learn in classes with other artists who want to break into the industry. I’m thinking, Juilliard.”