OVERBROOK PARK Toney Goins and his mother remember scrambling to find a black cloak and thin mask on the eve of his debut performance in front of his sixth-grade English class. That performance, they recall, piqued Goins' interest in acting and unveiled a talent that has brought Goins to a great height.
He will attend the Juilliard School for the performing arts in New York this fall, a dramatic change from the Overbrook Park section of Philadelphia.
"He's going to be a professional actor - unless he chooses not to," said Ozzy Jones, who coached Goins as he prepared for the Juilliard auditions. "He has real star potential."
The character that Goins, now a senior at the Haverford School, portrayed and that gave life to his acting career in sixth grade was, ironically, Death.
"Toney is a very bright young man. Very responsible, very focused," his mother, Carla, said. "He knows just what he wants."
Goins, 18, said he was inspired to perform for that sixth-grade class by his friend Jake Cohen. Cohen first brought some pizzazz to sixth-grade poetry readings with props such as a smoky cauldron and a witch's costume.
"I acted above and beyond, and went much further than just standing there," Goins said.
He went on to star in school and local musicals, such as Annie, choreograph plays for his high school, and branch out into community theater in Upper Darby Summer Stage productions. All the while, Cohen, who will go to Boston University in the fall, was learning and growing as a performer as well.
They have both attended the Haverford School since they were 4, and worked together frequently as they explored the performing arts.
"I couldn't be more proud of him. It's incredible. Incredible," Cohen said of Goins' going to Juilliard. "It almost feels like a piece of me is excelling, which is bizarre. We've just become so close that I'm kind of speechless."
Goins is one of the first students to choreograph musicals as an underclassman at Haverford, and has already been turned down at an audition for a Broadway musical. He said he considers the rebuff a positive and helpful experience.
To prepare for the auditions at Juilliard, Goins spent much of his time with Jones homing in on Shakespeare.
"I've been directing for 20 years, and he has all of the elements necessary to become a leading man as an adult," Jones said. "Looks. Intellect. The kind of personality and charisma that makes people want to work with you again. . . . And now that he's going to Juilliard, he's going to get the best training in the world."
Goins credits Jones with much of his success.
"I think without his guidance throughout this process, I would not have been able to get into Juilliard," Goins said. "I'm always going to be in a position to be learning from someone else. No matter how far I get, I'm always going to be in a position to learn."
The auditions were an all-day affair at which Goins recited prepared monologues, explained and explored the characters in the monologues, played games with strangers, and improvised body movements.
"The Juilliard audition is probably one of the more intense auditions for undergrad students applying," Jones said. "The amount of stuff they have to know and the range of things they have to know" is immense.
Goins is the first in his family and the first student from the Haverford School to attend Juilliard. But his family history at the school is long. Carla Goins said Toney's great-great-grandfather Earlie Stoutly Jenkins started as a dishwasher at the school and worked his way up to head chef.
"Here it is years later, his great-great-grandson is graduating from the school that he worked for for years," she said.
While Goins may not have known it, others say they had already seen his talent by the time he reached sixth grade.
"I saw it really early on, that he had that stage presence and confidence," said Delia Turner, his sixth-grade English teacher. "He stood upright. He used the space around him. He spoke loudly and clearly and confidently, and he added expression to his recitals."