It was in the third hour of rehearsal for Hairspray at Oakland High School last Thursday when volunteer choreographer Kasondra Walsh rallied the students on stage for the big show-stopper.
"OK, band, the cue is 'I haven't been out of this apartment in 20 years,'" she shouted, directing the actors into formation. "OK? Let's go!"
The pit band counted off, the dancers broke into movement, and lead actress Trinity Chau began singing: Hey mama, hey mama, look around / Everybody's groovin' to a brand-new sound!
Oakland High School's theater isn't usually so active. In fact, the rehearsals currently underway for Hairspray are a milestone: according to longtime faculty, Oakland High School hasn't mounted a full Broadway musical in over 40 years.
But the looming teachers' strike in Oakland could lower the curtain on the students' hard work. Opening night is scheduled for March 1. Oakland teachers announced Saturday that unless something "dramatic" happens, they'll go on strike starting Thursday, Feb. 21.
"I'm just so excited for this play. But if it's not going to happen, I just don't know what to say," said Chau, an 18-year-old in her senior year. "All the money we've invested into this show is more than $10,000. And if the strike happens on the week that we're performing, everything could just be lost."
Chau added that the musical had made her more excited about coming to school each day, a feeling echoed by her co-star, 17-year-old Kimberly Wong.
“Before Hairspray, there was nothing to do after school, and I was really bored sometimes," said Wong. "Now, I always have something to look forward to, because we're like a little family.”
It puts student actors and volunteers in a conflicted position: they believe in the show and want it to go on, but they also support the strike and don't want to cross the picket line.
Barring a resolution, Christopher Johnston, Hairspray's director, puts it plainly: "For me, and for these kids, it's basically the worst timing possible.”
'We Don't Have a Drama Department'
Johnston hatched the idea for Hairspray with fellow teacher David Byrd, who came to the school some five years ago and revitalized the music program. "We've had long periods here at Oakland High without any music program at all, and he's really brought it back," Johnston said.
In the past few years, students have thrown together glee club-type performances, writing and rehearsing themselves. "We don't have a drama department, we don't have a drama program," said Johnston, who teaches English. "It's always been a teacher doing it in addition to their normal program, which is a big lift."
Nevertheless, he and Byrd decided the kids deserved more.
The idea to mount Hairspray had one major setback: there was no budget to produce a musical. "We had a grant a few years ago which gave us some money, but there's no operating budget for music or theater arts here. So we had to scrounge it together ourselves, and right now it's all out of pocket," Johnston said.
As word spread, the community supported the musical. That includes a special discounted rate from a rental company for lights, microphones and spotlights, all of which the school's theater lacks. It also includes volunteer hours from a local choreographer and a vocal coach, both donating their time. There have been advance ticket sales for performances, and offers for help with sets and production on social media.
When the strike starts, the 23-member cast of Hairspray will likely move to a temporary rehearsal location. Johnston says he's talked to a theater company, a museum and a church in the area about free use of space.
But for the scheduled performances of March 1 and 2, there's only one theater in mind.
"Some people have thought, 'Well, we could do the show someplace else,'" Johnston said. "And I'm like, the whole point is to have this show at Oakland High School, because it's about changing the culture here. But is that feasible? I don't know."
Near the end of rehearsal, 14-year-old Trevonne Shanklin, who plays the character of Seaweed, sat on the side of the stage, consulting with the band on parts. "I want to be an actor when I grow up, so this is motivation, and inspiration," he said.
"It makes me want to come to school more, there's a strong community in this," added co-star Trevahn Srey, an 18-year-old senior who plays Link. "I don't know how it's going to work, we can't really push back the show, since we already sold tickets. But it's really affecting us."
For Chau, who's already applied to colleges as a theater arts major, the inequality of funding for her school is as hard to take as the uncertainty of Hairspray's opening night.
"It's like, other schools have something going on like this," she said. "Why can't we have it, you know?"
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