Tragedy leads to celebration of life at Theatre VCU

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Toni-Leslie James
Toni-Leslie James

By Nan Johnson

Office of Development and Alumni Relations

In just a 10-minute walk covering no more than three blocks in the Richmond neighborhood of Jackson Ward in July 2013, 18-year-old Jett Higham was gone − fatally shot during what police called a “robbery gone bad,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“It’s a reality I hope no one has to go through – losing a child to such senseless violence,” said Higham’s mother, Toni-Leslie James, director of costume design and associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Theatre in the School of the Arts.

“Jett was such an amazing, vibrant, beautiful kid,” James said. “We just have to continue on. I can understand how this type of tragedy can totally destroy a family. It’s been our mission to keep our family intact and to try to love and learn and laugh and continue on.”

It’s been our mission to keep our family intact and to try to love and learn and laugh and continue on.

Struggling with the enormity of the crime and looking for a way to support James in its aftermath, faculty, staff and friends at Theatre VCU rallied to create the Jett Higham Costume Design/Technology Scholarship to celebrate his life and to help talented students.

Bonnie McCoy, assistant professor and administrative director at Theatre VCU, was among many of James’ VCU colleagues who contributed to the scholarship. She was James’ assistant and associate designer in the years before their arrival at VCU.

“Toni and I worked together in New York when Jett was a baby,” McCoy said. “I knew him his entire life. He was an amazing, bright, charming, sweet young man.

“People wanted to do something special for her. This was a way to help. It was a joint effort because there’s so much love for Toni.”

The Jett Higham Scholarship is available to an undergraduate majoring in costume design/technology so that James can see its direct impact on her students. Based on financial need as well as a portfolio of work, the scholarship will be awarded for the first time in 2016.

“In Toni’s situation, how do you turn such a tragedy into some semblance of positivity?” said Joseph H. Seipel, dean of the VCU School of the Arts. “Her knowing that this scholarship will help students and young people who are struggling to find their way in the world is a way to honor her son. It’s a very poignant statement.”

Many faculty, Seipel said, give gifts that are very important. When faculty give back to VCU, it’s because they know how much that means to the students, he said.

“Jett’s mission is over. Now it’s time to figure out what our continuing mission is on this Earth,” James said. “I’ve dedicated myself to my students, to see the beauty of nature and theater and costume design, and to do the best that I can to make VCU one of the best theater departments in the country. That’s my mission, and I’m thoroughly dedicated to it. We are so appreciative that Jett’s spirit is still around us and is still alive.”


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