Two hundred children are seated in the cafeteria at 3 p.m. on a Friday, waiting to be picked up to go home. The two-way radio at Munford Elementary School blasts out “Cheslee Duke and Ramsey Whitney.”
Two girls jump up, excited to finally be called, and walk to the Duke car, chatting and laughing. Ramsey is carrying a sleep-over bag, and one might think it’s just going to be a fun weekend girl party. But there is something more exciting awaiting these two.
Cheslee and Ramsey are performers, and they are headed to the Community Actors Studio Theater (CAST) Kidz practice. CAST Kidz is a theater group in Anniston where these girls go almost every Friday night to prepare for their next performance.
Sometimes on Thursday nights, the girls have CharACTer’s Children’s Theater (CCT) practice, which plays an important part in their story. The girls became fast friends at CCT practice, so much so that Cheslee insisted that her mom talk Ramsey’s mom into transferring her to Munford Elementary so they could be at the same school. Ramsey is in the fourth grade this year and Cheslee in fifth grade. Even with their busy schedules, both say they love school as much as performing.
They have both earned honor roll status and both received academic letters in May. Ramsey is on the Announcement Leadership Team and Cheslee is on the Greeter Leadership Team. Math and reading are Ramsey’s favorite subjects, while Cheslee loves science.
When asked about homework, Ramsey said, “My dad helps me. Sometimes we do it at rehearsal or at breakfast.”
Cheslee said, “I am always able to get it done, but it gets tough when we are getting close to doing a play, and we have double rehearsals.”
Ramsey is the 9-year-old daughter of Scott and Emmalie Whitney of Coldwater, and has been singing since she was 3, when she sang a song about Mary at church. Since then, she has sung at many events in the Talladega-Calhoun County area, including Anniston’s Got Talent, Emma Mitchell Benefit Concert, Calhoun County Relay for Life, Northeast Alabama Cinderella Pageant Program, Talladega County Relay for Life, United Cerebral Palsy, National Get Outdoors Day and the Munford Elementary Talent Show.
Cheslee is the 10-year-old daughter of Mike and Tina Duke of Stockdale. She credits two friends for her start as a vocalist about four years ago. Her mom drives a carpool, and two of the boys, Draven Campbell and Carson Smith, kept chatting about how great Cheslee’s singing was. They were so convincing that Cheslee’s mom took her to audition for a theater play in Anniston, where she astounded the audience and was awarded the part of the Sour Kangaroo in “Suessical, Jr.”
Since getting their starts, both Cheslee and Ramsey have gone at it pretty much non-stop.
Ramsey is a member of the CCT Kids Competition Troupe, which has traveled to the iTheatrics Junior Theater Festival for the past two years to compete. The first year they performed a 15-minute cut of “Seussical the Musical” in which she played the little kangaroo. The troupe won an Excellence in Ensemble award for their performance, and Ramsey received a golden ticket from the judges and was invited to audition for a Disney Theatrics Choreography DVD.
In 2013, the troupe competed with a 15-minute cut of “The Little Mermaid Jr.” and she played the role of Flounder. The troupe again won the Excellence in Ensemble work for its performance, and has also traveled to Orlando and Guntersville, where it has competed and won awards as well. Ramsey again received a golden ticket at this competition, which meant she was chosen to audition for another Disney Theatrics Choreography DVD.
In the fall of 2013, Ramsey auditioned and was chosen to participate in Actors, Models and Talent for Christ (AMTC) in Atlanta. It’s a talent development program that prepares people to enter the entertainment industry and to show them how to be a light for Christ in the entertainment world.
In January 2014, she traveled to Orlando for their annual Shine event, where she performed in singing, on camera, scene reading, improv, TV presenter and modeling. She was a finalist in the child modeling category, won Best Overall Female Child actor, and was a Child Modeling Finalist out of more than 100 kids in attendance. She received a number of agency and casting director callbacks to meet one-on-one.
Ramsey has recently signed with the J Pervis Talent Agency in Atlanta. She has also recently auditioned for several motion pictures and a Broadway tour. Other theater performances for her include “My Son Pinocchio Junior,” “101 Dalmatians Kids,” “Annie,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Trial of Mother Goose,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Boomers” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Ramsey loves to perform and sing. When asked about her favorite part of performing, she said, “I like to ad lib because I get to do it differently each time.” She referred to her part as Gladys in “Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” for which she won an award, as being her favorite performance ever because she got to ad lib and say something different each time.
“I don’t get nervous in large crowds, but I get nervous in small crowds because they are so close to you,” she said. “Large crowds are more fun.”
She said that a few weeks ago she was asked to sing for family visiting from Texas and became extremely anxious for a few moments.
“She was nervous until she sang the first note. Then she got ‘in character’ and wowed them all,” Emmalie Whitney said. “Ramsey’s family, on the Whitney side, has influenced her career. Her grandmother, Louise Ballenger, is a music major from the University of Alabama and teaches in Anniston. Her dad, Scott, also sings and has performed in several CAST shows. Ramsey’s aunt, Kristy White, is also a vocalist and actress in Trussville.
Cheslee has performed in many of the same productions to much the same acclaim.
In “Suessical Jr.,” Cheslee was also part of an ensemble group that won an Excellence in Ensemble award, and she said her favorite theater role was when she played Ursula in “The Little Mermaid.”
In addition to these shows, she has performed in the CAST Kidz productions of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Trials of Mother Goose” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
“My favorite part of performing is to make people happy and see them smile,” Cheslee said.
She has also done musical renditions at her school's talent show and often sings the “Star Spangled Banner” at Munford High football games. She sang “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” at the Anniston’s Got Talent show in 2013.
“This was one of her first performances, and when she hit the notes on this difficult song, the entire audience stood up, cheered and clapped," her mother said.
She recently received the award of All Star from the CCT 2014 group, and was chosen as one of 20 from approximately 1,000 children to go to New York for a special workshop. She was also chosen as an all star at this year’s iTheatrics Junior Theater Festival. She has traveled to perform with Launch Direct in Chicago as a soloist and will return there in November to perform.
Cheslee and Ramsey both take vocal lessons when they can fit them into their busy schedules, and in preparation for one of the theater performances, they sometimes practice every night of the week and perform on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
When asked what advice they would have for other youngsters who want to be performers, Cheslee said, “Work really hard and don’t give up! Don’t take everything to heart if people say you are not good.”
Ramsey added, “Church is a good place to start, and they give you good feedback. But they won’t lie to you.”
Both girls have recently returned from New York, where they traveled with other members of the CCT group and their families. While there, they attended Broadway theater workshops sponsored by the casts of “Matilda,” “Newsies” and “Aladdin.”
Lisa Dobbs, the producing/artistic director for CAST Kidz, said Cheslee and Ramsey are both terrific performers who have bright futures ahead in the entertainment industry.
“They are both excellent singers who are energetic, creative and fun,” Dobbs said. “I am very proud of both of them, and I think they can go as far as they want to with their talents.”