It’s not often you see a sight like this at Worthington High School: all the Caucasian kids sitting on one side of the room, all the students of color on the other side.
But that was the strange and oddly jarring scene that greeted me when I arrived at the WHS choir room one afternoon in late November to accompany at auditions for the WHS All-School Musical, “Hairspray,” which is now set for performances this Thursday through Sunday.
Due to the “Hairspray” plot, which is set in 1962 Baltimore and revolves around the plump but white Tracy Turnblad’s efforts to win a spot on “The Corny Collins Show”–which happens to ban all kids of color except on the one day a month designated as “Negro Day”–a segregated cast is called for to make the story line believable.
Tracy is a free spirit who loves everyone–even the “bum on his barroom stool” and “the flasher who lives next door,” as she cheerfully intones in the peppy opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore.” She is also open-minded and, despite the pressure all around her to shun people of color, very happy to learn from and make friends with the “Negro kids,” who are often unfairly punished and placed in detention–where, led by Seaweed, they make the best of things and practice their dance moves.
Of course, it’s some of those new-fangled, down-and-dirty dance moves that help Tracy catch the attention of her major crush, Link Larkin, who the spoiled and bratty Amber Von Tussle leads around by the nose. Tracy isn’t one to forget her friends, so she vows to help Seaweed and his gang integrate “The Corny Collins Show,” never mind that it “simply isn’t done” in 1962 Baltimore.
“Would you swim in an integrated pool?” demands Velma Von Tussle, producer of “The Corny Collins Show,” when Tracy shows up to audition. “I sure would,” pipes up Tracy. “I’m all for integration. It’s the new frontier!”
Integrated pools are nothing new, thank goodness, in Worthington, where everyone is used to seeing people of all colors and ethnicities on a daily basis–on the streets, in passing cars, at the grocery store, workplace and gas station. No place is our rainbow of resident color more evident than the public schools; around 65 percent of District 518’s student population is now comprised of minorities, so students at every level are familiar with the potpourri of color and backgrounds represented by their peers.
Interracial relationships–like the one that develops in “Hairspray” between Penny Pingleton and Seaweed–are common, and accepted. Kids of all types work together, chat together, eat together, learn together, and it all seems to flow just right. Heck, my college-bound senior son rebelled after visiting a campus where the majority of collegiates “look all the same”–which was to say, blonde and blue-eyed like him. But he has grown comfortable, familiar and even dependent on the variety of students around him, recognizing how the diversity itself has enriched his life and experiences, and seeks to continue that at his next educational level.
Watching the 56-member cast of “Hairspray” work together in the past weeks of rehearsal, even as they are sometimes separated for purposes of the show, is heartwarming. Skin color means nothing to these kids; if anything, they dislike that sense of separation, and friends are parted from friends from scene to scene.
Alicia Khatt is a junior involved in the high school musical for the first time. Her parents came to the U.S. from Laos, but she has lived in Worthington all her life. She is adorable as one of the three “Dynamites,” and her comments provide great insight into the students’ perspective.
“The musical is really a great experience,” said Khatt last week. “It’s a great atmosphere, and one of the best things about it is I get to spend more time hanging out with my best friend, Laura Wetering.” Wetering is of English and Dutch descent, and the two girls are inseparable backstage, giggling and bantering with each other and a broader group.
“When I grow up, I’ll tell my kids about how fun it was to be in the musical and try new things,” attested Khatt.
From where I sit–this week, backstage at a keyboard in the pit orchestra–the rainbow spread before me is a beautiful thing.
“Hairspray” plays at Memorial Auditorium Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. All tickets are reserved seating; advance purchase continues in the WHS lobby today and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tickets will also be available one hour before each showtime at Memorial Auditorium.