'You've Got to Feel It': Westfield's High School Musical

At Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., putting on a show means Broadway dazzle.

This is no amateur performance by starstruck teens, but an annual rite of passage, with the polish of professional theater.

"There's a lot of parental involvement with the theater group," said Scott Pafumi, theater director at the northern Virginia school. "Everyone's always pushing everyone. But sometimes we tend to insulate ourselves in our own kind, and I want to break down those walls."

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Pafumi also said that Westfield is ""a predominantly white, middle-class, high-achieving school," where the membership of the theater department is over 90 percent white.

"The demographics of high school theater are primarily suburban and white," explained Jim Palmarini editor of "Teaching Theatre," a quarterly professional journal. "In some cases, you might have the diversity in a school, but not in the theater department. So how do you get minority students to come to an audition? To attract those students, we're going to have to embrace a broader and more tolerant view of what is acceptable for school theater production beyond traditional shows like 'Bye Bye Birdie.' That means hip hop, rock 'n' roll. Those changes have to happen."

In 2007, Pafumi took on the challenge of increasing diversity in Westfield's theater department. He decided to stage "The Wiz" -- the Tony Award-winning black musical version of the "Wizard of Oz" -- as part of his department's efforts to celebrate diversity.

The decision took parents by surprise.

"I thought maybe 'The King and I.' That's real diverse," said theater booster mom Lori Knickerbocker. "I would have been pleasantly surprised if it had been 'The King and I' because that's a traditional show."

One African-American student, Tay Baker, said, "When I heard they were doing 'The Wiz,' I was super excited because we have a reputation at our school for not doing diversity plays and stuff like that. It just made me happy because I grew up on that play."

Some other students were concerned about the challenges a black musical would pose for a predominantly white cast.

"I was so worried about us doing 'The Wiz' because we don't have that many African-American people in our theater department," said Garrett Henson.

His friend, Jade Jones, one of the top singers at Westfield, was also pessimistic. "I was concerned it could come across kind of corny and cheesy and it wouldn't have that soul and that funk that it really needs."

Lindsay Thomas, student choreographer for "The Wiz" and senior class president, worried about how Westfield's production would be viewed by the black community.

"My biggest concern was that we were gonna come off as white kids trying to act black," she said. "By the way we talked, or the costumes we wore. There's a fine line between honoring the culture and almost mocking it. And I didn't want it to be that way. I didn't think that the show deserved that. I didn't think that that was our intention."

'Monumental' Moment for Minority Students

Despite the concerns, Pafumi's decision marked the beginning of a remarkable journey that would challenge his students to question their understanding of black culture in America. Many of the students had never seen or heard about "The Wiz." When asked to describe the content of the musical, one boy said, "It's the 'Wizard of Oz' starring black people!"

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