The curtains are new and actually close all the way, the burned-out stage lights have been replaced, and the stage itself has been cleared of the boxes and gear that had turned it into a glorified storage locker.
The 500-seat auditorium at Armstrong High School is ready once again for a full-on theatrical production. A spotlight borrowed from another school is the finishing touch.
Students and teachers at Armstrong will present the musical “Once on This Island” on Wednesday and Thursday, the first in-house theatrical production at the school in at least two decades. Maybe even more years than that, though no one can remember for sure.
“It’s very ambitious,” said Cristian Koshock, an art teacher who is in his 18th year at Armstrong and one of a group of teachers who came together to work on the production. “The talents are being nudged out of people.”
History teacher Graham Sturm has become skilled with a power saw as he has led construction of the set; Jennifer Howard, an instructional assessment analyst at the school, has been creating costumes and headdresses. Students have emerged with singing and dancing talents no one knew about.
“It’s kind of magical the way it’s coming together,” Koshock said as we stood on the stage before a rehearsal last week.
Such a stage production is a routine occurrence at many schools, but at a place like Armstrong, which serves Richmond’s East End, it is a monumental achievement to hold such an event. The school has had difficulty meeting the state’s full standards of accreditation, weathered high turnover among teachers and principals, and even took a hit to its identity in 2004 when the old Armstrong on 31st Street closed and merged with Kennedy High. The new merged school took the name of Armstrong, operating out of the Kennedy facility on Cool Lane.
Auditions for “Once on This Island” began in January, but the groundwork was laid long before, as the school has tried to rebuild its arts offerings through an after-school program funded by a federal grant that included student participation in theater field trips and workshops and the hiring of part-time teachers in those specialties.
The impetus for a production originated with Topaz Wise, a special-education teacher with a musical background, who went to the administration and suggested a student show.
“This is the only school where I’ve been that everybody [said], ‘Let’s figure out how we can do this for the kids,’” said Wise, who is director of the production. “Dr. Bell just made it happen.”
Willie J. Bell Jr., in his second year as principal at Armstrong, called together a team of faculty members last fall and essentially told them to “make it happen.”
“When I was a principal in North Carolina, we did one, and it was the first one in school history,” he said. “It was a big deal.”
It only seemed natural to him to have a show at Armstrong.
“Because for one thing I know that our kids are so talented and it gives another perspective to their education experience,” he said. “It’s not just about sitting in desks and receiving information from teachers, books and all this. Kids don’t get the opportunity to show their true selves outside the classroom. This gives them another outlet. This is just, I believe, the premiere to something bigger that we have going down the road.”
“Once on This Island” is based on a 1985 novel set on a tropical island, telling the story of a peasant girl using the power of love to bridge different social classes. The original Broadway production ran in the 1990s, and a Broadway revival closed earlier this year. Koshock described it as “like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ meets the island, the haves and the have-nots.”
Theater teacher Jullianne Kramer, the show’s producer, is in her first year teaching high school, splitting her time between Armstrong and Community High, which is why about half the cast comes from Community. I met her in the Armstrong cafeteria, which is the “crossroad,” as Sturm called it, between the regular school day and after-school programs such as athletics and theater, where students gather to snack before going on with the rest of their afternoon.
Besides their lines, the students are learning about “commitment and teamwork,” Kramer said, and “the coolest thing is to see the camaraderie.”
It’s also been pretty cool to see students, such as senior Jasmine Richardson, display talents others didn’t realize they had. Richardson is one of the musical’s stars, playing Ti Moune, the peasant girl, though it took some encouragement for her to even audition. Wise provided the push, having heard Richardson sing last year by chance when Richardson sought her help on a song she was working on for a program outside school.
“She opened her mouth in the choir room and I spent the first 10 minutes like …,” at which point Wise’s faced turned into an emotive “Wow!”
Wise calls her “our beautiful surprise.”
“A lot of teachers are ill-prepared for what they’re about to see come out of this little child,” Wise said with a laugh about Richardson’s upcoming debut on Wednesday.
When “Once on This Island” was chosen, Wise knew she wanted Richardson to audition for the role of Ti Moune, but Richardson resisted. “I’ve never done anything like that,” she said. However, she relented, auditioned and got the part.
“Exciting and nerve-wracking” is how Richardson described her feelings as the public performances grow nearer, but also kind of thrilled to be there. She hopes to attend Reynolds Community College after graduation and then Virginia Commonwealth University for a degree in the performing arts because she likes the liberation she feels on stage.
“It’s like I’m not myself,” she said. “I’m shy; Ti Moune is a very adventurous and bubbly.”
In the hallway outside the auditorium, Monica Murray stopped to chat before she went into rehearsal. She’s an assistant principal who is playing Ti Moune’s mother in the show.
“It’s been a dream of mine to be in a musical,” she said.
Murray was a proponent of the production along with Bell because of the complementary instruction it offers to the academics of the regular school day and the introduction to workplace possibilities when it comes to the performing arts and because, she said, “This is Armstrong.”
“Armstrong/ Kennedy was the hub for music and all of that back in the day,” said Murray, who graduated from Richmond schools. “I remember coming to this auditorium for all sorts of citywide events. Everybody knew a talent show was going to happen here every year. We want to start bringing it back. We have so much talent in this building.”
And being on stage with students as a fellow cast member?
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s an absolutely beautiful sight to see.”