The new Grease commemorates civil rights struggle

When many think of the musical Grease they are inundated with images of pompadours, poodle skirts, dancing, and musical numbers easily sung-along to. When Isaiah Andersen thinks of the popular musical he can't help but notice what is missing: African Americans.

"This production of Grease, and every production we do, is different," said Anderson, director of the Summer Youth Theatre's adaptation of the popular musical at the Central District's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. "Kids of color can tie it into how they live."

Anderson's cast will present a "chocolatized and colorized" rendition of the play Aug. 19 to 21 at the Paramount Theatre. Honoring the 50-year anniversary of the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, the play's mainly African American cast has prepared all summer to tell the love story of a black Danny and Sandy. With Rydell High School as the first integrated high school in America, the plot reverses scenarios, making it the first black school to allow white students.

Despite this turn, Anderson points out that this play is much more than a celebration of African-American access to equal education. Also incorporating Motown choreography and R&B music of the era, Anderson says he has tweaked Grease to relate to the nearly 70, mainly African American, youths who participate in the Summer Youth Theatre program at Langston Hughes.

"The music has been rhythmized with rhythm and blues, and it's got a gospel feel to it, almost Motownish," said Anderson. "It's very clear that the dances done by black youth and white youth in the 1950s were very different. We do the same dances, but they are totally different."

Cast and character building

More than 200 teens between 13 and 18 tried out for a spot in the summer production coordinated by a staff of professional choreographers, actors, and other individuals involved in the local performing arts scene. Although the 10-week program may keep some students from working summer jobs or going on vacation, Romell Witherspoon, 18, a recent graduate of Rainer Beach High School, who plays Danny in the musical, thinks the trade-off is well worth it.

"This is not a place where you say, 'Dang! I have to go to Langston today.' You want to come," asserted Witherspoon.

In her fifth production with the summer program, Courtney Jones, 15, cast as the musical's Sandy, agrees with Witherspoon, adding that the program builds much more than acting skills. Jones, who had the opportunity to attend a program for advanced and gifted students this summer, and Witherspoon, who will be training for college basketball in the fall, do not regret their choices.

"This program is special because it gives teens that may come from backgrounds without much opportunity for success, the chance to show their talents and organize," said Jones. "Even if you don't have an interest in theater, I think people should come out anyway. It's a great opportunity to learn what you can do."

Although both students have experience in high-school productions, they see the summer youth program as a place that develops pride and drive. Working from 9 in the morning until 5 at night for seven of the program's 10 weeks, these students quickly become family. Jones describes this bond as a driving force in her own performance.

"You know they are out there, supporting you," said Jones.

Bright lights, big stage

The 10 weeks of professional training ends each summer at the Paramount Theatre, where a major production is presented to family, friends, and the community at large.

"Once you get to the Paramount, it's completely different," noted Witherspoon.

This is the first year the program will be charging admission for performances. Managing director Emanuel R. Cawaling hopes that the $1 matinee and $5 evening ticket prices will help the production break even. Tickets can be purchased in advance at the Langston Hughes box office and on the day of performance at the Paramount Theatre.

This is also the first summer students have been asked to pay a $100 tuition. Although each student who completes the program receives a $200 stipend, Cawaling does not see the fee as a detriment to program. Willing to be patient, he hopes that increased fundraising will continue to support the program's $112,000 operational costs.

Combining leadership, team-work, and the performing arts, Anderson says one of the programs main goals is education. Using the play's opening and ending scenes as examples, he describes a scenario where the audience is asked, "What would the 1950s be about if roles were reversed?"

Then, at the play's conclusion, Anderson describes the players saying to the audience, "So we turned it around the other way, if you didn't see anything on issues of race and religion it's because it never should have been."[[In-content Ad]]