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Alum spotlight: Jessica Hebron Smith (BFA ’06)

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collage of photos

Jessica Smith Hebron (BFA, Theatre Education with a minor in African American studies, 2006)

culturequeen@culturekingdomkids.com

Jessica was destined to work with children and theatre. “As a kid, I was on the playground directing my classmates.” A few years later, she attended the Suitland School for the Visual and Performing Arts in Prince George’s County, MD for four years as a theatre major.

Jessica knew VCU was right for her as soon as she visited, “They treated me at the audition like they wanted me to be there, and Lou Szari told me that day that I was accepted.”

As soon as she started at VCU, she began to break rules. Theatre Ed majors were not allowed to audition for their first year. Even so, she auditioned for Hair and was the only freshman in the show. Another rule is that students shouldn’t be in productions off campus, but Jessica continued to build her resume with Arts 180 and other programs outside VCU.

“Karl Green taught me to sew. I made my first Culture Queen outfit in back 2002 when I was a freshmen at VCU! It was so difficult. But, it was fulfilling to wear something I made that honored my royal heritage. I even made a matching purse”

Fast forward four years and Jessica had already determined, “I am not going to graduate and not have a job.” In April of her senior year, Jessica got hired as a Drama and English teacher in York County, VA.

After 3 years, Jessica started Culture Kingdom Kids in York, which travelled with her when she returned to Richmond. “I like working with young kids…using art to teach kids about culture, especially Black history.” She found numerous ways to realize her goal, including Afrocentric birthday parties with a pyramid set, Egyptian costumes and actors to play the characters. She describes it as “kind of an Afrocentric Chuck E Cheese.”

Jessica got hired by Kaiser Permante in Maryland, where she created shows for teachers on subjects like smoking and drugs. Meanwhile, she was still running Culture Kingdom Kids, working with museums and schools across the country to provide cultural education. She also created a children’s album, YouTube concerts and a book.

Jessica is currently Chief Program Officer for Young Audiences/Arts for Learning for Maryland’s schools (YAMD). She oversees all arts programs pre-K thru 12 for the entire state, which includes supervising more than 70 teaching artists. Earlier this year, Jessica organized Blacktastic a virtual Children’s Festival of Black History & Culture through YAMD, which was attended by more than 17,000 people—A YAMD record!

A collage of screenshots from virtual festival Blacktastic

Thinking back to VCU, Jessica cites two professors who were mentors. “Denise Odom, who taught me to take my craft seriously and Dr Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, who was a huge mentor. She helped me learn how to be empowered.” Jessica is still in touch with many of her past teachers, including her preschool dance teacher.

As for teaching vs. performing, she states, “I don’t see it as one or the other. I always wanted to be a teacher and a performer.” Jessica has certainly made that a reality.

Jessica and her husband at their wedding


Compiled by Liz Hopper, professor emeritus, and Jerry Williams (BFA ’71) for the April 2021 Theatre Alumni Newsletter.