GREEN: For three years, the Green High School drama department has tried to find a way for the suburban school’s musical theater students to perform the Tony award-winning Hairspray, an upbeat musical that takes a swipe at racial segregation in the early 1960s.
A roadblock perpetually popped up: How does a school with a predominantly white student body pull off a musical in which about half the cast is black?
“We don’t have the diversity within this school and were left with the question of how we accomplish it and make it as authentic as possible?” former teacher and musical theater director Scott Bantum said.
Black students make up only about 2 percent of the enrollment of Green schools, according to state data. Still, the musical kept returning to the short list, mostly because its content and language are appropriate for teens, Bantum said.
It was Bantum who suggested the school approach inner-city Timken High, said Mike Wiley, Timken’s choir director. The majority of the Canton school’s student body is black.
Wiley, who did his student teaching in Green under vocal music director Alaina Starr, was the conduit this year who helped turn the idea into reality. There haven’t been any musicals produced at Timken High in recent memory, he said.
“They were more than excited when I told them about it,” Wiley said.
Four performances are scheduled for Friday through Sunday at Green High.
Considering today’s teens are more than two generations removed from the civil rights movement, it was possible that students couldn’t appreciate the struggles that divided the nation in its segregated past.
“This is a living history lesson,” said Bantum, who will direct the musical. “There is a scene at the end of act one when the black cast meets at the record shop to crash the Corny Collins Show,” he said.
Upset by the blatant discrimination on a televised dance show, the protesting teens are confronted by angry white mothers who are trying to stop them.
“We’re kind of walking a fine line here,” said Bantum. “[The mothers] have to say things, and the black kids have to say things back. At first, [the student actors] refused. When I told them it was in the script and they had to say the lines, they asked if they could hug [each other] first.”
Jordan Seman, 16, of Green plays one of the mothers.
“We didn’t like saying the mean things we had to say. We talked to the kids about it first to make sure they knew it was just part of the script,” she said.
Kelsey Jones, 18, of Green said she and her friends see racial discrimination as archaic and reserved for older generations.
“We’ve always known about the [civil rights movement], but when we had to live it through the play, I was shocked by the nasty comments,” Kelsey said.
“Yeah, that really blew my mind,” said Jessica Dixon, 17, of Green who wears a fat suit costume in her portrayal of heroine Tracy Turnblad in the musical.
Early in the school year, Starr, Wiley and Bantum held what is commonly referred to by students as the “Eat, Meet, Greet and Feet” (as in dancing) party. The 75-member cast participated in exercises that required cooperation and trust and a game similar to speed dating to get to know one another quickly.
It worked. Friendships formed “in about a minute,” Starr said.
“I think that’s the great thing about kids. It only takes them a few minutes to become friends,” said Green Principal Cindy Brown, who supported the idea of combining the two schools for the performance.
Students immediately began “friending” one another on Facebook, the teachers said.
Timken Trojans posters hang on Green High walls to make the teens feel more comfortable at the school.
Wiley said his students were impressed with the theater department that includes tiered seating in the choir room, sound rooms for practice and a high-tech auditorium.
‘‘They were shocked at the school … They really don’t have the same resources here,” Wiley said of Timken’s facilities.
Students share views
Timken student Jaylin Hill, 16, said he can’t compare his high school with the building where students held their first dress rehearsal Thursday night.
“The surroundings are just so different,” Hill said.
Rian Hall, 17, and Hill said their behavior improved while at Green because they want to reflect well on their school.
“We don’t want to give our school a bad reputation,” Hill said.
Johnny Fields, 17, said he is impressed with how well he has been treated and how nice Green students are.
“Our school is old. It’s easier to work here and we accomplish a lot more,” he said.
Jazzmyn Walker, 15, who portrays Maybelle in the play, said she thinks Green students are fortunate to have such a great music facility at their disposal.
“I love this school. I’d love to go here,” Walker admitted.
Timken student Allyson Harris, 17, said she never dreamed she would be able to perform in Hairspray, which she called her favorite musical. Timken doesn’t have a theater department.
“I always wanted to do a musical. But I thought, ‘This is me.’ It’s my favorite musical, and it’s me being in it. It’s so exciting,” she said.
The team has more than one motto, said Bantum, but possibly the most important one he told students the first time they met.
“Today, we stopped being the Timken cast and the Green cast and became the Hairspray cast.”
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or email@example.com.