JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – When Staff Sgt. Kent Powell Smith III auditioned last summer to join this year’s U.S. Army Soldier Show cast as a performer, the show chose him to serve as a technician instead.
But when push came to shove, fate ultimately opted to put him out on the stage.
The sergeant, who embraced rapping, dancing and performing for audiences at the age of 7, and has stuck with his passion for it ever since, had served eight years in the Army and never had the slightest idea it boasted a travelling song-and-dance show until it stopped off last year at Fort Irwin, Calif., where he is stationed with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
He almost decided not to even see the production – an annually changing cast packed with newly tapped Army talent that he found was right up his alley.
“I wasn’t planning on going, and then, when I actually saw it and saw what they do, I was like, ‘Wow, how come I didn’t know about this earlier,’ ” said Smith, a communications specialist and Queens, N.Y., native who applied for this year’s show as soon as he had the chance.
“If I’d have known about this when I first joined the military, I would have done it a long time ago.”
On his application, Smith elected to join the cast but, because of his communications background, chose to be a technician if he didn’t make the cut.
So when the group of entertainers hit the road in early May for a four-month-long tour to installations across the U.S. and Japan, Smith donned a black T-shirt designating him a staff member.
He leads the assembly of the production’s elaborate stage setup, which now includes a 13-foot-long, 28-foot-high LED video wall; operates sound equipment and a high-tech mixing board; fixes microphones and adjusts frequencies.
But an injury last month to one of the show’s dancers changed up the pace a bit for Smith, when the production’s stage manager decided to put Smith’s experience as a performer to use.
He knew Smith had the dance moves memorized. So, with two hours’ notice, he told him to pay close attention to the group’s pre-performance rehearsal. He would go on stage that night when the cast played for an audience at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah.
“Everyone had a long time to train for this,” Smith said. “Me, I had only a couple of hours.”
The short notice had him nervous, and a desire to perform well piled on the pressure.
“You just want to show that they didn’t make a bad choice by putting you in the show, so you want to do your best,” he said. “You want to give it your best and give it your all.”
After five shows as a dancer and vocalist in a collaborative performance blending a rendition of rapper Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” and an original cast song called “Army Strong and I Know it,” Smith’s character was alive and thriving when the show stopped off at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Aug. 10.
“For any musician, you have that bug; it’s like that performer bug,” Smith said. “When I was teching, it was bothering me that I wasn’t out on stage. Now that I’m out on stage, it’s like, ‘OK, full circle, it’s good to go.’ I’m happy now.”
Smith is one of two technicians with the show chosen to perform. A broken foot one of the dancers suffered last month during an onstage backflip put Staff Sgt. Charles Walker Jr. in a rap and breakdance performance called “The Show Goes On.”
Walker, a generator mechanic stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., grew up emulating the dance routines of his idols, like pop star Michael Jackson. Once, he even danced onstage with rapper MC Hammer in 1992.
So when the time came to step up to the plate, he delivered, despite fears that the audience wouldn’t respond well to him.
“I just put all that to the side and danced with my heart,” said the Sicklerville, N.J., native. “It was all love out there.”
Smith and Walker both agree that technician and entertainer are tough jobs in their own respects, requiring almost 20 hours of work in one day on some occasions. But to wear both hats at the same time, they said, is nothing short of hectic.
“Once I get off stage, I have to jump right back into tech work,” Smith said. “I’m out for three scenes not being back stage. It’s double duty.”
Jumping from hours of stage setup to rehearsal and from the spotlight to tech labor, it’s easy to see that the two represent hard work, but, according to Smith, they stand for something else – something profound.
“For me, being on stage, it’s just saying that anything can happen,” he said. “If you stay passionate, and you stay with it, anything can happen.
“I’ve been rapping since I was seven years old, and now, 20 years down the road, I’m doing this. I never thought, ever, that I would be here.”
But alas he’s there, standing on stage with fellow Soldiers whose talents will write a legacy in Soldier Show history. And he has no problem describing how it makes him feel.
“You’re doing a job that you like to do, but doing what you do on the outside, which is music, and then all of a sudden you have the opportunity to do music and your job,” he said. “It’s breathtaking.”