In advance of its summer musical, "Oliver!", the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas will host a panel discussion comparing Charles Dicken' England with today's gangs, domestic violence and other social ills.

In advance of its summer musical, “Oliver!”, the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas will host a panel discussion comparing Charles Dicken’ England with today’s gangs, domestic violence and other social ills.

The discussion will be held at 6 p.m. June 27 and will be led by the Rev. David Fleming, pastor at First United Methodist Church and member of the Arts & Science Center Board of Trustees, where he is chairman of the performing arts committee.

Fleming is an alumnus of Hendrix College and obtained a master’s degree from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. He is also a veteran actor who has appeared in countless productions, including the role of Oliver as a youngster and Fagin in the Arts & Science Center’s production that opens July 24.

“It doesn’t seem possible that in 2013 we haven’t solved issues like gangs and domestic violence” said Lenore Shoults, executive director at the center. She said, “The musical Oliver! was selected for its entertainment value but it was also chosen because we want to use the arts as a catalyst for community dialogue .”

“Oliver!” is set in the early 1800s, a time period that included a high percentage of orphans due to the death rate associated with childbirth as well as the abandonment of babies that resulted from poverty and the stigma of teenage pregnancy. Oliver is an orphan who is taken in by Fagin’s gang of street urchins. Gangs, that we might think of as a modern problem, were common and the group that Oliver takes up with “to pick a pocket or two” provide an example of how children could take to crime — especially under the manipulative guidance of someone like Fagin, the character who trains the youngsters in the criminal arts.

Fast forward 175 years and gang violence still exists as renowned gang expert, Steve Nawojczyk, will discuss. Nawojczyk’s work was featured in the award-winning HBO America Undercover documentary, “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock” and he was co-producer of the follow-up documentary “Back in the Hood”. He is one of the nation’s most sought-after and quoted educators on juvenile violence and gangs and how communities can deal with them.

English teacher Susan Coles will offer the historical context of Charles Dickens’ England. A lifelong resident of Pine Bluff, Coles is an English teacher at Sheridan High School, where she has taught since 2005, and an advanced-placement literature consultant for Arkansas Advanced Initiative for Math and Science. Prior to teaching in Sheridan, she taught at Pine Bluff High School for 13 years. She received her undergraduate degree from Hendrix College and her master of education with emphasis in English from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. She also holds an Advanced Placement certification from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Leslie Peters, director of the Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson County, will bring his expertise working with, and inspiring, youth. Peters founded Visions Group and he has traveled to 45 states for speaking engagements about his signature topic — the importance of life choices. He also serves as adjunct faculty at Southeast Arkansas College and is a member of the Arts & Science Center Board of Trustees. Peters is a 1994 graduate of Jackson State University and obtained his master of business administration from the University of Phoenix.

CASA executive director, Karen Palmer, will join the panel to discuss the issue of domestic violence. She has worked in the field for more than 20 years and is a board member of Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence and is a founding member of the “Brave Woman Campaign.”

One of the most famous songs from “Oliver!” is, “As Long As He Needs Me” and it includes the lyrics, “Who else would love him still, when they’ve been used so ill?” The character is abused and eventually murdered by her boyfriend and this aspect of the production prompted the panel discussion and underscores how the arts can be a catalyst for community conversation.

“Oliver!” is sponsored by Simmons First National Bank. Tickets are now on sale and range from $20 to $24. Student tickets are $5. For ticket information, call 870-536-3375 or visit The center is located at 701 Main St.