When my local high school announced it was slating Hairspray as its spring musical, I was terribly skeptical. Although the school, like the city, is extremely diverse, I had only rarely seen a non-white kid in their productions. At that school, as at many schools, theater is for white kids.
Ken Gibson, the theater teacher who directed this production, assured me that he had a plan. He had spent the previous couple of years introducing himself to students of color, inviting them to shows, showing up at events hosted by the Black Student Union. He had black school staff on his team, inviting college adviser Kayla Brooks and guidance counselor Korey Lamb into leadership positions on the musical. He even recruited the mayor, Deanna Reed, once the only black member of many casts during her years at HHS, to advise and have a cameo in the production.
In his director’s note, Ken specifically described how Korey helped him connect with students he wouldn’t have met otherwise. He wrote, “This felt more human and honest, but raised questions for me. Was I identifying black people just to play a part? What would I say if someone asked, ‘Why are you talking to me? Is it just because I am black?'” I think Ken’s honesty and humility were crucial to the success of this production (and it was an extremely successful production).
HHS is known for tight, well-executed musicals. Their students are the beneficiaries of an excellent arts program, including the Fine Arts Academy, a sort of conservatory within the school. Not only do they have drama, choir, and band, they also have a dance program. The musical doesn’t rely only on kids who can afford to take dance at a private studio—many of them learned to dance right in that school, under the guidance of Amber Corriston, who was the show’s choreographer. The students have a lot of skill at their art before rehearsals even start, and that gives the show a leg up on schools that invest less in the arts.
When I’ve seen HHS shows in the past, I have always been impressed at their polish. They are very clean. The sets and costumes are fantastic (they have a dedicated and talented corps of parent volunteers, some of whose children graduated years ago). But this show was different. There was such joy in it. So much heart and soul and courage all over that stage.
My favorite moment was during the song “I Know Where I’ve Been,” which is so very much about the older generation passing on the struggle. During the song, black adults (including the mayor, a school board member, a school secretary, and some parents) joined the cast on the stage. Those real adults, joining the students (some of them playing adults) on that song was unspeakably powerful. Even my young son, who didn’t have enough context to understand the exact meaning of it, was moved to tears.
That production felt like a hopeful turning point for the program, a radical goal achieved. The audience was more diverse than I’ve ever seen at one of their shows. People from all over the city were talking about it. The houses were packed. I’m (theoretically, corona virus pending) directing their next show, a production of As You Like It. Of the 21 students in the play, eight are people of color. That doesn’t quite match the school’s demographics, but it’s a lot closer than they’ve been in the past. I’m hoping to do what I can to keep that momentum going, to keep inviting people in, to keep telling stories together.