Thursday, July 31, 2014

Memorial High Collaborates with Local High School on "Memphis, the Musical!”

In a Houston classroom across town from Spring Branch, students are broken off into clusters during a rehearsal break.

The heat of July has found its way into G.W. Carver Magnet High School where the student cast has been practicing the opening number of David Bryan and Joe DiPietro’s Memphis, the Musical! for the past few hours. So far, they haven’t complained about the lack of air conditioning.

Set in the underground clubs during the 1950s, Memphis tells the fictional story of DJ Huey Callahon, a white-male with a passion for rhythm and blues music, and Felicia Farrell, an up-and-coming black-female singer on Beale Street. 

Despite objections from Callahon’s mother and Farrell’s brother who owns a club on Beale Street, Huey and Felicia begin a risky affair. The story takes place during the social transition from radio to television, a time when no one can accept the idea of interracial love, or interracial anything for that matter.

But sitting in rehearsals, it is apparent that the real story lies not in the characters but the young actors and actresses who play them.

Sprawled across the practice room are students from Spring Branch ISD’s Memorial High School and Aldine ISD’s G.W. Carver Magnet High School laughing at YouTube videos on their cell phones together and chatting about their plans for the night.

This fall theater season will bring these students from both schools together on one stage.

They are the Millennial Generation, a group that symbolizes just how far we have come since the 1950s: since segregation and since race divided a nation of immigrants.

Memphis, the Musical! is a joint production of  Memorial and Carver Magnet high schools. The cast of 40 — 20 members from each high school — is embarking on a history lesson to prepare for the show.

“The students are learning how it went from radio to television because none of them were alive; I wasn’t even alive during that. So they’re going to get to see the progression of not only how racism played out, but also how radio became popular, how it transitioned into television and how people could make it or break it based on that,” Nicole Morgan, Memorial High theater director said.

Carver High is an application-only, historically African-American high school in Aldine ISD that focuses on applied engineering, technology and the arts. Many of the students studying performing arts plan to pursue it as a career.

Roshunda Jones, G.W. Carver theater director (second from the left) teaching choreography to the cast. 
Morgan has been working with Roshunda Jones, the G.W. Carver Magnet theater director, for the past five years on Texas Thespians, an educational honor society dedicated to encouraging and improving the skills of Texas theatre students.

After seeing the interaction between their students, they mutually agreed that a joint production needed to be done.

“We started sharing buses to Nebraska together and our kids started getting to know each other. It was funny because on the way to Nebraska our kids would all be separated on the bus, then on the way back they’d be all mixed up,” Morgan said.

Last October, the two directors were sitting in a hotel room and decided that if they were going to do a show together, it was now or never.

“Roshunda looked at me and said ‘Nicole I found the perfect show, Memphis, the Musical!’ I read the script and listened to the music; we have been pushing forward ever since,” Morgan adds.

Morgan is focusing on the technical side of the production such as the set and costumes while Roshunda has taken the position of lead director.   

“I have to take a step back and not be in control which is an experience in itself for me. Maybe my way works for some of them [my students], but perhaps thinking outside the box or differently could be better for them. And I think part of the process that I am most excited about is that they’re going to get to work for somebody else even in the comfort of our own school,” Morgan said.

Both theater directors held auditions at their schools in May and then brought their 20 best to Memorial for joint call backs in early June. For this specific show, they had to cast students who could not only play the parts, but also make them believable.

 In that sense, color-block or color-blind casting — the process of casting roles without considering the actor’s ethnicity — wasn't an option.

 “I think sometimes with what they call color-block casting and this new-progressive thinking, you forget that some of these older audiences that are not trained in theater still need to see something that they can believe in although it is temporary on stage…Especially with a show set in the ‘50s like this one,” Morgan said.

Nathan Morgan  (front right) belting his solo, "The Music of My Soul."

For the students who began rehearsing in late June, the production is unlike anything they've ever been a part of. 

“Everywhere you go you’ll find different types of people; all these kids are really cool, incredibly talented and welcoming. It is a learning experience and we can only hope our interactions are reflected on stage,” Memorial senior Nathan Morgan said during his break at rehearsals.

Nathan plays the lead role of DJ Huey Callahon; he refers to her character as ‘a white man with a black soul.’ The senior football player played Shrek in Memorials production of Shrek the Musical last year and Luther Billis in South Pacific the year before.

The 18 Memorial High students cast as ensemble are playing roles that require white actors and actresses such as the store owners and pedestrians who depict racists, except for senior Leela Rao, who plays one of the Doo-Wop Girls on Beale Street.

Leela Rao (second from the left) with her Doo-Wop counterparts during rehearsals.

“I get to experience something that no one else from Memorial does so I feel like I've been really lucky in that sense. Even though I just met all of the Carver kids a few weeks ago, I already feel comfortable with them,” Leela said.

“Musicals are such an encompassing art form and just because you come from different backgrounds or go to different schools doesn't necessarily mean that you can’t put on a great show together.”

The curtain for Memphis, the Musical! is set to rise on Sept.6 at the Memorial Performing Arts Center. For ticket sales and more information click here.

Show times:
6, MEMPHIS, the Musical!, Memorial High School Performing Arts Center, 7 p.m.
7, MEMPHIS, the Musical!, Memorial High School Performing Arts Center, 2:30 p.m.

8, MEMPHIS, the Musical!, Memorial High School Performing Arts Center, 7 p.m.

This story was written by Communications Intern, Kali Venable.


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