The first reaction was a high-pitched scream. Then there was cheering, yelling, dancing, fist-pumping and applause.
Northwest School of the Arts learned Friday about a $50,000 donation from Wells Fargo to help students cast in “The Color Purple.” The money will jump-start an effort to get to the acclaimed International Thespian Festival.
The last time a North Carolina school was invited to the festival – just 10 schools per year get asked to attend – was 33 years ago. Besides performances, the students attend a weeklong educational conference, and college recruiters will scout talent and offer scholarships.
“It’s our World Series, it’s our national championship,” said Andy Lawler, the school’s arts director.
The summer festival, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will cost the cast about $131,000 to attend. Friday’s donation leaves the students with $41,000 left to raise.
Staging the show
The Northwest School of the Arts is the second school in the nation to perform the musical “The Color Purple.”
Permission to perform it is given sparingly, and high school productions are not allowed if a national tour of the musical is happening, said Corey Mitchell, a theater teacher and the director of the Northwest production.
“The Color Purple” is the story of Celie, who endures all kinds of abuse throughout her life, and about her transformation as she learns self-worth and what it means to love.
The 75-student cast performed “The Color Purple” last September. The scouts from the thespian festival attended the Saturday night performance, which cast members said they’ll never forget.
The audience didn’t know the judges were there.
But they gave the cast a standing ovation that lasted three minutes, said Danielle Hopkins, a senior who plays Shug Avery.
“We couldn’t even finish the last few notes,” she said.
Raising the money
Fundraising for Nebraska hasn’t been easy. Mitchell is challenging each student to raise at least $400.
“I’ve had a number of students come to me personally and say there’s just no way I can raise it,” he said.
Last spring, a school in Atlanta performed “The Color Purple” and also received an invitation to the festival – but they couldn’t come up with the money.
Mitchell said he’s determined to not let that happen to the kids at Northwest. “I’ll sell my car if I have to,” he said.
He said he’s hoping the Wells Fargo donation will just be the beginning of community support for his students.
Jay Everette, Wells Fargo’s community manager, said he felt the students’ goal was a worthy cause. “It’s just the chance of a lifetime for these students, many of whom have never traveled outside of North Carolina,” he said. “We felt (this) was too incredible to miss out on supporting in some way.”
Taking their production more than 1,100 miles is pricey.
Registration for 75 students and a dozen adults helping with performances costs more than $58,000, with plane tickets adding about $46,000. Then the group has to rent and ship the sets and equipment, adding thousands to the cost.
After Friday’s donation, the students are more fired up than ever.
“It’s so exciting for everyone,” Hopkins said. She recalled when she first heard the news about the invitation to Nebraska: “I couldn’t even react, I was so stunned.”
Mekhai Lee, a junior who plays Mister, agreed. “I had a sore throat the day after,” he said. “We were screaming for 10 minutes straight.”
Principal Melody Sears said the story of the downtrodden Celie is one of struggle and perseverance that she sees in her students. “Some come from impoverished circumstances, some are homeless, some come from nice financial means,” she said, “but none of that matters here.”