'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!"

On the first day of auditions, Pafumi urged his students to embrace the style of soul.

"You need to take this chance and run with it," he said. "We're not mocking, we're not making fun of the style, we're trying to find it. You've got to feel it. That's why it's called soul. I know most of you are a bunch of white guys from northern Virginia. So am I. But that doesn't mean that I can't celebrate the style of the show. You gotta find that. And we're going to help you get there."

To help the teens find "the soul" in "The Wiz," Pafumi brought in Jones' aunt, Kelly Butler-Noel, and mother, Kim Butler-Dennis, a famous twin-sister singing duo who have been two-time winners on the nationally televised program "Showtime at the Apollo." For Butler-Noel, working as the vocal director was an opportunity she could not refuse.

"For a high school to say we embrace 'The Wiz,' that means a lot to me, means a lot to these students. It's saying we value African Americans and what they've contributed to our country and to our community. That's monumental. That's Westfield history."

The auditions attracted a fresh crop of talent to Westfield High.

"'The Wiz' is the pinnacle African-American musical play," Pafumi said. "If you're a black kid, or family, you probably grew up knowing what 'The Wiz' was. So when I decided to do the show, it was a purposeful choice."

In the end, about 25 percent of the more than 100 teens who auditioned were minority students and first-timers to the musical theater experience.

'The Race Factor'

Audition week kicked off in fall 2007 with a brutal series of try-outs. Students were tested on their acting, singing and dancing abilities, and only 24 were invited for callbacks.

"It's not 100 percent guaranteed that just because you made a callback, you are cast," Pafumi told them. "Some of you don't maybe know that about theater, but a callback is a second chance to see something. Out of the 24 of you, eight are going to stay in 'lead land.'"

When the names for the coveted leads were posted, there was surprise, jubilation and a few tears. Some students asked Pafumi whether race was a factor in the casting.

"It's almost reverse racism," he explained. "The race factor did matter, did count and we were hoping to find the right kids with the right talent and experience who would befit the show. But it can't just be about skin color, you have to have the talent to back it up."

That's a dilemma many high school theater educators face when casting for plays that include minority characters.

"Does it serve the piece to use a cast that seems non-traditional? I don't know whether you could do 'Raisin in the Sun' with a color-blind casting," said Michael Peitz, executive director of the Educational Theatre Association. "With 'Ragtime,' you have an African American segment in your cast. When you look at a play which is about the African-American experience, racial intolerance, are we going to get the same message with a white actor in that role? Or does it somehow diminish the message of the piece? What's the author's intent and message and how do we portray that?"

Although Jade Jones may have had some doubts, once the audition process began, she was enthusiastic about the new talent. "I don't think 'The Wiz' needs an all-black cast. Basically, anybody who has soul and knows the heart of the show can do it," she said.

"It was very interesting to see how it worked out with all these other people from outside the theatre department coming in and auditioning," said another student, a senior at Westfield. "I actually like that aspect, because now we have a bigger theater group, we have a huge theater group."

All of Pafumi's theatrical productions for the year were based on the theme of diversity.

"I wanted these kids to walk away with the willingness, and the attitude, to be open to others, to accept others, and to accept that there are other things out there that other people like that you don't," he said. "And you can either decide to like it because you have finally been exposed to it and get rid of your prejudices. Or you can just learn how to tolerate other types of people."