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

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.

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