“Dreamgirls” Doesn’t Take to the Stage at ELHS, Amid Controversy
Above: Pernasia Evans, Asante Reide, and Elizabeth Ngassa attend a Black Student Union meeting on Nov. 14, 2018. Photo by Linda Nduwimana.
It all happened so quickly. A blaring voice over the announcements. A cast list taped up in the library window. A Snapchat, screenshotted again and again. A rumor. One meeting that lead to another, and then another. A cycle of conflict and controversy that ended in the replacement of the East Lansing High School (ELHS) spring musical.
But that’s not where it all began.
On November 12, 2018, ELHS’s theater department announced the spring musical would be "Dreamgirls." This musical follows a trio of black female singers from Chicago as they struggle, during the 1960s, in the face of racism as well as the patriarchy of the music industry, with the music remaining a celebrated symbol of empowerment for black people and women today.
Adam Woolsey, director of the theater department and ELHS English teacher, chose the musical in response to claims that the theater department had been historically white-centric.
“We really wanted to cater to those students that hadn't necessarily felt like they had a voice in the theater department,” Woolsey said. “We chose ‘Dreamgirls’ very intentionally in every effort to start to bridge that gap.”
Woolsey and Kathryn Kowalski, the assistant director, knew this would be a big musical to take on in terms of production, size, and plot, but decided it was a risk worth taking. It would create an opportunity for many students that hadn’t been part of the scene before.
“‘Dreamgirls’ is one of the only black productions that made its way to such a big stage,” sophomore Anaiis Rios-Kasoga said. “It was created as a haven for black culture because we didn’t have stages . . . to tell our stories and our narratives.”
Woolsey held informational meetings in early December, distributing audition packets and briefing students about the musical. He emphasized the theater department’s intention of finding a diverse cast.
“I did tell students that we would only do it if we could do it the right way. That we wouldn't do it if we couldn't do it in the way that was appropriate or that it was meant to be done or performed,” Woolsey said. “Admittedly, no one along the way necessarily clarified what that meant.”
When ELHS’s Black Student Union (BSU) heard that the spring musical would rely heavily on black actors and actresses, co-presidents Rios-Kasoga and senior Sarah Whitaker thought it appropriate to encourage their members to audition for a part.
“We pushed all those students out to get the roles,” Rios-Kasoga said. “A lot of kids who weren't super comfortable putting themselves out there did it anyways.”
BSU was also adamant that the lead roles be cast as black and stay true to the story of "Dreamgirls." This caught the attention of Portrait, ELHS’s newspaper, and Portrait published an article titled “Dreaming of Diversity” that captured BSU’s fear that the play would be whitewashed. The article was added just before the issue’s publication and the reporters did not interview the theater department before it went to press.
“That article came right within that day or so of us announcing the show,” Kowalski said. “So that made a mountain for us to have a climb right off the get-go.”
Despite the press, auditions ran smoothly. After the initial round of auditions and callbacks, Woolsey and Kowalski ran the potential cast list by Principal Andrew Wells early Thursday morning before posting it on the library door.
“It was a really strong cast,” Woolsey said. “We were thrilled at what we had.”
Not all students shared in Woolsey’s enthusiasm. Although the cast was diverse, two of the leads were to be played by Latina students, junior Keila Chacon and senior Ajah Montalvo, which many students, including those in BSU, felt would take away from the heart of a musical so focused on black empowerment.
“These women [lead characters] are meant to portray an experience,” Rios-Kasoga said. “Obviously Sarah and I did not grow up in the sixties, obviously I’m not dark skinned . . . but I am a black woman and I go out into the world as a black woman every day.”
For her and Whitaker, the fact that a black musical was being led by two non-black women was disrespectful and insulting.
“Just going through life as a black woman, there's a lot of things that are taken from you and given to other groups that are appreciated when . . . they're expressing that art form,” Whitaker said. “But when you're expressing it, it is seen as ghetto or unprofessional or just not worthy of being expressed, even though it's your culture to begin with.”
Woolsey recognized these reactions and decided to frame the standard “welcome to the cast” meeting a little differently than usual.
“Instead, I just kind of said, ‘Hey, I noticed a lot of differences of opinions or hurt feelings out there with the way that the cast list looks.’ So I gave students a bit of an opportunity to debrief or have a discussion in a way that we could understand one another's opinions,” Woosley said. “I don't think people walked away with their opinions changed. But at least we had an understanding of one another.”
BSU also held a meeting and met with Woolsey the day the cast list came out to discuss their concerns regarding the casting choices.
“I think it's important that we had this conversation . . . it can establish a dynamic between students and teachers,” Whitaker said. “It's always been teachers teach you things, but if teachers are really here to serve us, there needs to be teaching on our side.”
Sharing these thoughts with Woolsey, the group did their best to come to an agreement.
“They really put a lot of things into perspective for me,” Woolsey said. “I'll be honest . . . we had never released this cast list with the intent to have the two female roles ‘pass’ as African American or say, ‘hey, the struggles of African Americans are equal to that of Hispanic Americans during the 1960s.’ Never in our wildest dreams had we ever intended on that being the message of this show.”
The meeting ultimately resulted in the indefinite postponing of "Dreamgirls." BSU later posted a formal statement on their Instagram page stating their disappointment but also their dedication to their position.
“BSU does not attack, we stand up for ourselves, stand by our principles, and support our people eloquently, clearly, and unapologetically. BSU did not want the play to be canceled, however we refuse to be content with playing supporting roles to non-black leads in a black narrative that was a struggle to even get on a stage in the first place.”
The statement from the BSU Executive Board continued, “It’s so sad that ‘Dreamgirls’ won’t be done, but it’s not because of us. We wanted our black students to have that opportunity and representation. However, the casting decisions made on the theater departments part kept that from being a reality. We are very sorry that we and the East Lansing community will not be able to see this show. Because it is something that should be seen, our stories and history deserve to have a continued and accurate platform.”
Woolsey and Kowalski took time to deliberate, meeting with Wells before eventually choosing a new musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
“We listened to our students and we made a decision accordingly,” Woolsey said. “We're doing a smaller musical because we lost two and a half weeks of rehearsal time . . . it has nothing to do with, ‘we're just not going to do a big musical,” he added, explaining, “It's really scheduling.”
Below, sophomores Paulina Chalyenko and Philip Smith and senior Katrina Petroff stand outside the ELHS theater room, waiting for individual auditions for the “25th Annual Putnam County’s Spelling Bee” on January 22, 2019.
The new musical has a much smaller, ensemble-type cast rather than a few star leads. Like “Dreamgirls,” the show carries positive, relevant messages about today’s youth and the pressures they face.
“We represent an important part and showcase an important part of our students in East Lansing,” Woolsey said. “And so we chose a different show, one that still has a good message . . . about the pressures of performing, high expectations from peers, from parents, from school.”
Still, “Dreamgirls” will always have been their first choice.
“I’m in a position where I am disappointed that we weren’t able to do this beautiful show that I wanted to do, because I can see us,” Kowalski said. “I can see us all on stage, taking that bow, Adam and I talk about this all the time, we can see it and how great it would’ve been. So I find myself there and I’m disappointed that we won’t have this opportunity.”
“But,” she continued, “the other part of me is so proud . . . that the kids came in to talk to us and the BSU, when they had the meeting, and they voiced their concerns, and everybody, that were so professional and so insightful . . . I'm so proud of them. That's what we teach here at East Lansing. For them to stand up for what they believe in and to say what their principles are. To stand out there when it might be an unpopular thing [to say].”
A slightly shorter version of this article was published last week in ELHS’s Portrait. East Lansing Info (ELi) thanks Portrait for permission to reprint it. Sign up for ELi's free weekly e-newsletter by clicking here.
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