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Northwest School of the Arts’ ‘The Color Purple’ cast and crew head to Nebraska for International Thespian Festival

For many students, high school theater is a fun extracurricular they’ll list on a college application.

But for a few cast and crew members of Northwest School of the Arts’ “The Color Purple,” it’s changed their lives. Having endured homelessness or other hardships, it’s given them a sense of normalcy and dreams of a career.

They’re among the 75 cast and crew who are all going to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for the International Thespian Festival Monday. The highly selective festival invites just 10 high schools each year, and it’s been 33 years since a North Carolina school was invited.

To even get considered for the festival, schools must pay $1,200 for scouts to judge the performance. Corey Mitchell, the musical’s director, said the last time a Northwest show was judged was in the ’90s, but it didn’t get an invite. He said generally 35 to 50 shows enter for consideration each year.

Not only did “Purple” get invited, but the festival named the musical its top featured performance out of the 10 shows.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime” for everyone in the production, said Barbara Wesselman, Northwest’s costume design teacher. They’ll perform, attend workshops and talk to college recruiters.

The students had to raise about $130,000 in just a few months to pay for the trip. Read the stories of three young people who overcame extra obstacles and shared what the experience means to them.

For his father

“The Color Purple” is the story of Celie, who endures abuse throughout her life. It follows her transformation as she learns self-worth and what it means to love.

More than anything, Mekhai Lee, a rising senior, wanted the lead role of Mister. He didn’t want it for the glory or the challenge. He wanted it for his father.

Mekhai’s dad is serving time at a maximum security prison in New York. He last saw his father during a prison visit five years ago.

The entire process of putting on “The Color Purple” (Northwest is only the second high school in the country allowed to perform it) has been filmed by GreyHawk Films for a documentary.

“It’s something I can take to show my dad,” said Mekhai, who got the part. “That’s the reason I wanted to play Mister so badly. I wanted him to see me in the spotlight. It’s a moment we can share together, which is really, really awesome.”

Mekhai is originally from Flushing, Queens. He discovered his love for theater and music in elementary school: He was in several plays, sang in the glee club, was in the dance club and played trumpet. His father went to prison when Mekhai was 2 and has never seen his son perform.

Mekhai said his father’s absence from his performances has always hurt. “I want to do well and show him what I’m up to, and what my school life is like,” he said.

In 2008, he, his mom and sister moved to Charlotte. After some tough middle school years, Mekhai found his home at Northwest.

His mother, Karla Flora, said they’ll visit colleges this summer, and that Mekhai has his eye on the Boston Conservatory. “He’s always been a great kid, a good communicator and extremely passionate since he was 9 years old,” she said. “… He’s not going to let anything stand in his way.”

‘I felt like Celie’

Jordan Medley, 19, graduated from Northwest last year. He’d been accepted at Point Park University in Pittsburgh for dance that fall, but a few weeks before his graduation, Jordan found himself homeless and without time to properly file for the financial aid he needed. He dropped plans for college. “I felt crushed,” he said.

Mitchell hired him as stage manager for “The Color Purple.” Today, he calls the musical his “saving grace.”

“More than anything, I look at it as an act of God. Being a part of it has inspired me so much,” Jordan said. “I felt like Celie (the protagonist who perseveres through hardships). ...I had so many people more than willing to help me…”

Now, Jordan said Point Park University is giving him a second shot, and he’s planning to audition there July 13.

“I’m so happy I could be a part of (the musical) because if I hadn’t, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” he said.

Finding her niche

In 2007, Britany Bowens moved out of her grandparents’ home in Virginia to live with her mother in Charlotte. In middle school, she realized she was behind academically: “They were doing stuff I’d never even heard of.”

Then at West Mecklenburg High, “it all went downhill,” she said. Britany skipped school a lot. “I was so caught up in the freedom of high school, even if it was wrong.”

Her mom put her in alternative school, where Britany repeated ninth and tenth grades. Unenthused about school, Britany said she figured she’d just get her GED someday.

But her grandparents convinced her staying in school was the right choice and she enrolled in East Mecklenburg High. “I was scared. I always thought that people who failed grades were stupid.”

At East Mecklenburg, Britany took a theater class, loved the teacher and started acting in performances. She started at Northwest in 2011.

About that time, her family – mom, stepdad, and two younger brothers – became homeless. They’d live in a hotel room for the next two years.

She was excited when she heard about “The Color Purple.” Britany wanted to play Sofia, who doesn’t take grief from anyone.

But she didn’t get the part. Still, she was thrilled to make the ensemble cast and role of “church mama.”

Wesselman, the costume design teacher, was impressed.

“Here’s this kid; she wants Sofia so badly,” Wesselman said. “When the casting list comes out, she says, ‘I got the part I needed.’ ... How mature is that?”

Her mother, Bridget Parsons-Dawes, said she was amazed and proud when she saw Britany perform. “I just could not believe my eyes because I’ve never seen her be that comfortable.”

Britany, a rising senior, said her grades aren’t good enough for scholarship consideration when she goes to Nebraska, but she still hopes to talk with college representatives. “I don’t want it to be a pity story,” she said. “I just want help pursuing what I want to do.”

‘Filled to bursting’

Mitchell, the musical’s director, is “immensely proud” of all the students.

“I am filled to bursting, and sometimes, oh gosh, it’s so silly, but I’ll just start crying at a moment’s notice,” he said.

Mitchell said he knows that many of his students in “The Color Purple” have had a lot of personal trials, and he’s amazed by their resilience.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Wesselman said, adding that many students in tough situations are always “gratefully respectful kids.”

Jordan said he and the students have nothing but gratitude for Northwest, their families and the Charlotte community that’s paying for the trip. The Wells Fargo Foundation chipped in $50,000, and the students got donations from other groups and churches. About $15,000 was funded through power2give, an online crowd-sourcing website powered by the Arts & Science Council.

“We’re going to go to Nebraska and make them proud.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294
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