The Duluth Playhouse Education Program brought back this classic musical about integration and acceptance, and used the opportunity to teach the teen actors about the issue of racism.
“I chose this show because I wanted to push the boundaries,” said Kate Horvath, Education Director at the Duluth Playhouse. “We wanted to provide opportunities for kids of color in a culture that they’re underrepresented. I wanted to reflect the face of Duluth so the kids that come will see kids like them in the show.”
The show ran from March 13-30 at The Underground Theatre. The show is set in the 1960s and tackled the issues of racism and prejudice all while keeping a fun, light-hearted feel to the hilarious, larger than life musical. The lead character, Tracy Turnblad is a pudgy, spunky, white teenager who ended up leading the fight to bring integration to the popular teen dance television program, The Corny Collins Show.
Horvath said she wanted to use the show as an opportunity to shed some light on an issue that has been slowly buried with time. She believes that theater is valuable asset in educating people on the societal issues of today and utilizes that as much as she can.
The directors and staff aimed to bring the still very prevalent issue of racism to the forefront once again within an age group that may not have had the opportunity to step out and really discuss it.
“I wanted to be in this show because it stands for things I want to eliminate in the community,” said East High School senior Sara Fields who played Motormouth Maybelle. “I learned that everyone is different and we need to respect each other no matter what those differences may be.“
Horvath dedicated entire rehearsals solely to discussion and communication about racism and prejudice. She says she used research projects, guest speakers, and the personal testimonies of some of the students’ experiences with prejudice. They not only talked about race, but also about weight, sexual orientation, and religion.
Not so ironically, the plotline of integration within the show mirrors the integration that took place within the cast of the show. The fact that the Playhouse has a wide range of diversity between high schools is a product of it being a community theatre. With the characters of this play being very diverse, the kids from the Duluth Playhouse went all over Duluth and got other kids to volunteer.
According to Pernille Soderlind, sophomore at Harbor City International School, the fact that there are kids from so many different schools made it much easier to find enough African-American students for the show to be possible. Even in the white-dominated population of northern Minnesota.
“We have new people all the time now and so many schools are represented,” said Soderlind, who played the role of Shelley. “Everyone here wants to be here and we’re so excited about it that we want other people to come into it too.”
For kids like Kori Ponder, a senior at Marshall school, that word of mouth and sense of community is exactly what brought her back to the Playhouse for her final show as a high school student. She said she liked the fact that she made so many new friends that she probably never would have met otherwise.
“I did this show because I like that it’s collective with other schools in the area and I can meet new people,” said Ponder, who played Judine. “Also they really needed me because I’m black,” she said with a giggle.
The process of integrating the students from seven different schools and backgrounds was not an easy one, however. Hermantown High School senior Rylee Kuberra said it took a while for everyone to become completely comfortable with each other.
“Since Minnesota is so not diverse, at first it was like, ‘so many black people in one room holy crap’,” said Kuberra, who played Prudy Pingleton “At first the black kids kinds hung out with the black kids and the white kids with the white kids. That changed after we had full rehearsals talking about racial differences.”
Kuberra says that now that the show has come to a close, that feeling of separation is totally gone. She says it’s easier for her to approach and relate to those from a different racial background because of what she learned from the experience in the show. She says now everyone feels like a big family. Not just the actors, but the design and tech crew as well. They all continue to stay friends and stay in contact over social media.
Some fellow high school students volunteered their time to tackle the stressful behind the scenes work and had the valuable opportunity to experience the other side of theatre, a rare opportunity for high school kids.
The students all agreed that performing at the Playhouse is a completely different and more professional experience than doing theatre at their schools. This is due to the fact that the staff and directors are all paid professionals with an extensive background in theatre.
"I am proud to be an arts educator,” said Horvath. “A theater professional who challenges students, and produces high quality arts experiences. Our vision for children's theater is one of inclusivity, and while we focus on skill development in our discipline, we integrate educational experiences that build character and community on and off the stage."