“I gotta get out! I gotta get out!” sang the cast of “Hairspray” as they desperately clawed at the jail bars standing in front of them on the stage of Tang Theatre. As the song, “The Big Dollhouse,” got louder and louder, the cast pressed their faces and hands through the bars, frantically searching for a way out of the jail cell that they’d been placed in after protesting racial segregation on television.
Directed and choreographed by Erin Strong, Instructor in Theatre and Dance, and with music direction by Abbey Siegfried, Instructor in Music, the Theatre-920 class’s performance of “Hairspray” sent a message of perseverance in the context of socio-political issues of the 1960s such as racial integration, gender stereotypes and beauty standards. The Theatre and Dance Department chose “Hairspray” because of conversations surrounding race and gender at Andover in recent years.
“The main plot of the play is racial integration… [The show] is set in the early ’60s, so it still has that [’60s] feel to it, but all of those themes and topics are alive and well at Andover now. A lot of the cast actually went to the Blackout… [which was] the sit-in on the steps of [Samuel Phillips Hall] a few weeks ago. The other topics that are really timely that come up in the show are roles of gender, body image, and also there is one female character that’s played by a man,” said Siegfried.
Set in Baltimore, MD., the show begins with Tracy Turnblad, played by Alexa Rodriguez-Pagano ’16, auditioning for a role on the popular TV show, “The Corny Collins Show.” She doesn’t get a spot after the show’s producer, Velma von Tussle, played by Elizabeth Latham ’16, and her daughter, Amber von Tussle, played by Sabrina Appleby ’17, deem Tracy overweight. They also disagree with Tracy, who wants to make every day on the show “Negro Day,” as opposed to devoting one show per month to black performers.
Rodriguez-Pagano said, “Vocally, [Tracy] was a role very much for me, because I’m a big belter, and that was very fun to do, so I found joy in that everyday [while rehearsing]. The main thing I liked about [Tracy] was the fact that she’s very persistent, and she went after what she wanted, and that was very easy to relate to that quality in her. Also, she got to speak in a very nasally voice, which was very fun.”
Soon after auditioning for “The Corny Collins Show,” Tracy and her best friend, Penny Pingleton, played by Isabella Berkeley ’19, meet a black student named Seaweed J. Stubbs, played by Avery Jonas ’16. Jonas dances on “Negro Day” and teaches Tracy a dance that impresses Corny Collins, the host of “The Corny Collins Show.” Strong, filling in for Emma Kelley ’17, played the role of Corny Collins. The host is so impressed that he overrides von Tussle’s decision to exclude Tracy. Meeting Seaweed and dancing with his family and friends also convinces Tracy that they should fight to integrate “The Corny Collins Show.”
“I definitely was not around in the ’60s, nor did I experience anything about integration or segregation or anything like that, so I definitely had to do my research. We did it as a cast as well. That was one challenge we had, actually immersing ourselves in the time period and trying to accurately portray that as much as we could,” said Rodriguez-Pagano.
Halfway through the show, after Tracy, Penny and Seaweed decide to lead others in a protest against the segregation on “The Corny Collins Show,” Seaweed’s mother, Motormouth Maybelle, played by Skylar-Bree Takyi ’16, sings “I Know Where I’ve Been.” The song highlights both Maybelle’s own struggles as a black woman and also the struggles of all black people who have fought for equality. She sings about her hopes for racial equity in the future. Maybelle begins the powerful song by herself, but by the end of the number, the rest of the protesters are harmonizing with her. The song inspires them to proceed with the protests.
“‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ really is the heart of the show,” said Strong. “It’s so poignant, because it’s such a shift from the other songs we’ve had until then. You suddenly realize, ‘Yeah, this is what the play’s really about.’ They’re doing it, they’re having fun, but this [song] is the heart of it, the soul of it. It really helps set the message of what we had been telling and having fun telling. But that’s the moment we get serious and say, ‘This is what it’s really about, folks.’”
Although Tracy and her friends land in jail after their initial protests, the group decides to stage another, larger protest in which they disrupt a live broadcast of “The Corny Collins Show.” The audience reacts so positively to the protest that the show’s sponsor, Ultra Clutch Hairspray, decides to fully integrate the show. This victory is celebrated with the musical’s final song, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Even the play’s antagonists, the von Tussles, join in on the singing, showing their acceptance of the show’s integration.
Natalie Warren ’18, an ensemble member, said, “The overall message of Hairspray for me is definitely that no matter what your skin color is, you can all integrate and have an awesome time, and just be a big community together. That really applied to the cast, because I feel like that’s how the cast was. No matter what the color of our face was or what part we were playing, we were all super close and had a great time.”
Editor’s Note: Avery Jonas and Skylar-Bree Takyi are Managing Editors of The Phillipian.