Poetry and motion

April Charmaine and John Futrell use creative expression to help the next generation find its voice.

By Kurt J. Brighton

Publish Date: February 18, 2015

 behind the scenes of April and John's photo shoot.
Photos: Dave Neligh

April (Axé) Charmaine (B.A. IDP writing and performance ’02) and John Futrell (B.F.A. painting ’99 and B.A. African-American studies ’00) know how to make a statement.

Whether through movement or words, creative expression is the couple’s passion and they go to great lengths to share the love: She directs the dance department at Denver’s East High School and runs Sol Vida Dance studio; he’s published three books of poetry and tours the country as a spoken-word artist known as Panama Soweto.

It seems fitting, therefore, that they met when Charmaine received the MSU Denver Alumni Statement Maker Award.

“It was 2012, and I needed a date,” said Charmaine, who was honored for her work with Denver youth and adults at Sol Vida Dance. “[John] stepped up, and from there we became enamored.” The couple married in 2013.

For Charmaine — who says “every single cent” of her MSU Denver degree has paid off in her work — seeing her students take ownership of the projects she helps them create is her biggest reward. Recently, her students at East High worked on a tribute to Maya Angelou titled “Inspirations From Maya: Our Stories, Our Dances.”

“About two weeks into it, one of my students said, ‘Miss Axé, this is my dream project. I’ve always wanted to make dances about things that I care about.’ So when I see that light turn on, and I can push young people to discover their own artistic voices, that’s a big reward for me,” she said.

Similarly, Futrell is fueled by lighting a creative fire in others. “There is nothing more significant than setting a heart to purpose,” he said. “Poetry has allowed me to heal and, in return, given me the opportunity to help others find their voice.”

When not performing at colleges and other venues nationwide, Futrell works for the Denver Housing Authority conducting job-readiness training for youth, an occupation he attributes in part to his upbringing.

“[My grandparents] really pushed public service as an ideology,” said Futrell. His grandmother, Edna Mosley — who was in MSU Denver’s first graduating class in 1969 — served three terms as the first African-American and the first woman on the Aurora City Council.

“From the age of 14, I’ve worked with youth. Now with the Denver Housing Authority, I work with young people who have some kind of barrier: either they’re college dropouts, teen moms, low-income or live in public housing,” he said.

In addition to cementing his belief in public service, Futrell’s background shaped his stage name.

“I got called a lot of different names because nobody thought I was a black kid with two black parents. But Panama is the nickname that stuck,” said Futrell of growing up in a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood in New York.

His work on a second degree at MSU Denver in African-American studies also informed his artistic alias, specifically his research on the 1976 student uprising and subsequent massacre in Soweto, South Africa.

“The importance of that [event] is that children marched, first of all,” he said. “To have that kind of power is something I really admire. So ‘Soweto’ is the part of the stage name I took to represent how I want to be: ‘Panama’ is the perception others have of you; ‘Soweto’ is the thing you aspire to be.”

Both Charmaine and Futrell believe that helping young people claim their power by fearlessly articulating who they are is the most important gift they can give.

“Getting youth to express themselves at their most authentic and grand level really makes a big impact,” Charmaine said. “It empowers them. To me that is the biggest reward: That we can keep spreading love and joy through art.”

WATCH John Futrell perform as Panama Soweto and tell a tale of empowerment, human connection and beauty through his original poem, "What Is Beautiful."