Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Marshall White

Unity Performing Arts

Mark Hunter

Whatzup Features Writer

Published January 1, 2018

Heads Up! This article is 5 years old.

Marshall White has a thing about relevance. White is the man behind the very successful Voices of Unity Youth Choir, the choir that has performed in China, The Vatican and elsewhere. And while White is grateful for the approbation heaped on the Voices of Unity Youth Choir for its triumphs overseas, he is disheartened that the recognition stops there.

“People see them as a black choir, for inner-city, at-risk kids,” White said. “The media only portrays Unity as a choir. All the things behind the scene they don’t know. Nobody gets behind the scene to see it’s drawing white kids, rich kids, kids from the northwest, kids from the southwest, across all financial demographics, races, zip codes. So people dismiss it because they don’t know.”

What is there to know exactly? Quite a lot, it turns out.

The Voices of Unity Youth Choir is just one aspect of the Unity Performing Arts Foundation. And though UPAF has been around officially for 17 years, the dream that kept White awake at night began in the early 1990s.

White grew up in the church, the True Love Missionary Baptist Church, where his father, Jesse White, served as the larger than life pastor. White had talent has a singer and piano player and from an early age sang and played with the choir.

“We had a church choir that was well known in the community because we were doing things outside of the community,” White said. “And I grew up in this community. But as I got older I found that none of the institutions outside of the church were relevant to my culture artistically.” White found that lack of relevance in the choir when he attended North Side High School, and later when he went to IPFW. He realized if he wanted relevance he would have to create it himself, but not for himself.

“I always wanted to create an institutional concept where kids of color and other minority groups would have a platform where they would be exposed to the essential disciplines of the arts that would help them in their development and expression and everything because what they were doing was shunning the arts programs because those programs were not relevant.”

So he began his journey.

In 1993 he taught a choir course at Northrop High School which he saw as a first step outside his church. A year later he landed a job with the Black Voices of Inspiration at Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus. Within five years he had taken what was an extracurricular choral group and turned it into a professional university choir.

White said for years the main vocal ambassadors of the university had been the glee club. But the notoriety his choir was garnering caused the president to boost the Black Voices of Inspiration to the level of the glee club. A 20-day tour of Australia, Fiji and New Zealand followed.

“So I’m on the trajectory of a journey that’s taking arts to kids of color at a different dimension,” he said. “I was actually working on that all my years at True Love.”

All his work at True Love and Northrop and Purdue was noteworthy to be sure. But White wanted more. He wanted to take the work to the community at large. He just wasn’t sure how to do that. Then, following a concert with Black Voices of Inspiration in Ohio, a man approached him with a message.

“He said his name was Prophet something or other,” White said. “I thought, ‘Okay.’ He said your choir is phenomenal. I said, ‘Well, thank you,’ and he said, ‘I didn’t stop you for that. I stopped you to give you a message from God.’

“When he said that, my musicians were looking at me, I was looking at them and he said, ‘I’m serious,’ and he grabbed my hands and said, ‘God has chosen you to lead the children in the next generation,’ and I froze. What? And he said, ‘You’ve been faithful. You’ve been chosen to lead the children of the next generation.’”

At that point, White said, the notes he’d been taking in the middle of the night after waking from a recurrent dream began to make sense. Those notes comprised the foundation of what became Unity Performing Arts.

“That’s a moment I will never forget because I was paralyzed,” he said. “I was blown away ’cause I’d never had anything like that happen to me. So now it’s becoming real to me. It was something I’d been chosen to do.”

White took his notes, gathered some people he thought he could get to help him and laid out the plans.

There were four main goals he wanted to accomplish: create a community arts program that would increase minority participation; create an umbrella organization to teach all the arts to kids regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic background; create a support system for each child that would track their performance and their lives to provide help and assistance when needed; and inspire and exemplify diversity in the performing arts community behind the scenes, on stage and in the audience.

“What we saw was the arts are not diversified,” he said. “The other arts groups, they don’t have a clue about how to attract diversity. What we did was create a curriculum that was appealing to the people we were trying to attract. We were attracting them; we weren’t targeting them. Targeting means I’m bringing my thing to you and you accept it. Attract means something appealing to you and attracts your attention.

“So we found out what they wanted, what they liked, what they had not been exposed to and we built this concept called the soulful art forms. And it has nothing to do with color. It means to give attention to the actual experience of the art form.”

The plan is working. Unity Performing Arts provides access training in singing, creative writing, dance, oration, drama and orchestra. “We have youth development and educational modules,” he said. “We teach leadership, career building, finances, everything. Kids join the program and don’t even get into the arts. Eventually we want to build a center for the arts downtown called Unity Center for the Performing Arts so you drop kids off at and they’ll have access to everything. We’re not just producing singers or actors. We’re producing people with character, with substance. We’ve created a platform of development, not a platform of activity.”

But to be sure, they are producing singers and actors. The 2010 trip to China saw Voices of Unity earn the World Grand Champion title and two gold medals at the 6th World Choir Games in Shaoxing. Former members now perform on Broadway and with Fantasia and Mariah Carey. They’ve performed at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis several times, sharing the stage with Stephen Stills, John Mellencamp and Kelly Clarkson. In 2016 the group toured Europe with performances in Rome, Vatican City, Lido di Jesolo, Sacile, Florence, Venice, Vienna, and Budapest. And White is just getting started.

“So now I’m on this journey to present an entire institution,” he said. “Unity is a national model. It’s a platform we can replicate across the country. This journey for 17 years has been infused with the divine. You don’t achieve in 17 years what we’ve achieved without it.” One of the more remarkable aspects of Unity is that they hold no auditions. If a child wants to participate, to sing in the choir, they are welcomed.

“Ninety percent of the kids who come to me can’t sing,” White said. “Some can’t hold pitch, some can’t clap. But, we are a platform of development. We hold no auditions. What happens to your kid when they’re told they’re not good enough? Unity is the place where every kid is welcome. Some of our best singers have turned out to be kids who could not sing when they first started.”

And that fact, choir or no choir, is as relevant as it gets.


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