Threatened with teacher layoffs due to funding cutbacks, Duke Ellington School of the Arts decides to risk it all on a Broadway-style production of Dreamgirls.
On a chilly Friday night an hour before showtime, O’Thame Teeter strolls into the theatre at The Duke Ellington School of the Arts carrying with him a calm, confident energy. He has a starring role, playing Curtis Taylor, Jr., the somewhat oily yet charismatic Svengali to the girl singers who end up fighting over him in the school’s production of Dreamgirls. When asked about that night’s performance, the 19-year-old says “I have to kill tonight.” He smiles, his handsome face lights up, and he explains that doing well tonight will give him the momentum to “really kill” on Saturday night.
“My mother is coming tomorrow night, and it’s the first time she has ever seen me perform, in anything,” Teeter says. “I really have to be good tomorrow night!” His mother lives in a drug rehabilitation center and was using crack when Teeter was born. He lived in foster homes until an aunt took him in, and struggles with a learning disability. When casting for Dreamgirls began last spring, Teeter, who has a strong voice and always sang in the school’s choir, decided to try out for a smaller part, “but they decided I would be good as Curtis.”
Doing this play, working with the other students, meeting Tony Award winner Jennifer Holliday, the original Effie White in the 1981 Broadway production of Dreamgirls, has transformed his life, Teeter said. “Before I came to this school, I just kind of felt lost. I didn’t know what I would do with my life. I knew I could sing, but I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to do something like this. Now I feel that so many other options have opened up for me. This makes me want to work even harder, maybe do musical theater, maybe even work on Broadway.”
At a time when decline in corporate sponsorship and government budget cuts are destroying professional arts organizations and eliminating arts education in schools, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts remains a symbol of hope for the talented and disenfranchised Washington D.C. youth looking for a place to find their creative voice, nurture it, pursue their dreams of higher education and perhaps even the long-range goal of making art that uplifts the world.
Kids like O’Thame Teeter, said Ellington’s Head of School Rory L. Pullens, is one of the reasons he—along with the faculty, staff, parents and benefactors—works so hard to rustle up the money to keep the school alive. “He’s a special education student, and because of his learning disability he was pretty much written off when he was younger,” Pullens said.
One day during pre-opening rehearsals he noticed Teeter going over his lines. “He was reading his script out loud, and I could see him stumbling over some of the words. Where another student could read the lines easily without any problem, O’Thame had to read it five or six times. And he was telling himself ‘ok, ok, you can get this.’ I turned around quietly so he could have his space, but then I started wondering if maybe this was too much for him, if he could handle memorizing the script, get all the staging.
“But when I saw him on stage opening night, I was blown away. Now he’s so excited about what he wants to do. His grades are improving. He’s a senior, but he told me ‘I wish I could stay here one more year. I’m so happy you picked me to be in this play.’
“This experience has changed this kid’s life,” Pullens said. This is what arts education does.”
Long-term success is another by-product of an arts education. The Washington D.C. school district average on-time graduation rate is 59.9 percent, according to an Education Week magazine state graduation report for the class of 2007. Duke Ellington claims a 98 percent on-time graduation rate, and 95 percent of those students go on to college.
Pullens also cited a study by Indiana University of Duke Ellington alumni over a 20-year period. According to the study, 77 percent of the graduates were working the in the world of arts and entertainment. “The study shows that for these Duke Ellington students, this arts education experience was not just some passing fancy. It confirmed for me how valuable this program is for these young people. Without Duke Ellington these kids may have lost their way and never graduated from high school.”
Figuring out a way to keep this dream factory alive was the creative force behind staging Dreamgirls. This fall, Duke Ellington, which was established in 1974, faced a $500 thousand budget shortfall due to District budget cuts, and with that possible layoffs of arts staff.
“We just couldn’t accept compromising the integrity of our artistic program,” Pullens said. “We decided that as artists, we gotta get creative and come up with an idea no one else has thought of. That was the motivation for creating this production to be a major revenue producer. And we pulled out all the stops.”
Amazingly, they had already decided to do the play when they learned in August that the Broadway national touring company of Dreamgirls had canceled their D.C. run because of low ticket sales. After talking with the Broadway Dreamgirls team, and seeing the void, Pullens concluded that “Ellington has to do it. We knew then that it was going to be a more professional level kind of production. We engaged a Broadway set designer and a Hollywood costume pro to work with our students.”
He also brought on former Duke Ellington theatre department head Linda Gravátt, an acclaimed actor/director who has worked on Broadway, film and television, to direct Dreamgirls. Musical Director e’Marcus Harper is a Grammy-nominated artist who has worked with the likes of Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin. And producer Kenneth Johnson, chair of the Theatre Department at Duke Ellington, is a founding member of Crossroads Theater Company and worked as a stage manager for television and Broadway, most notably Angels in America.
But the students are running the show, working every aspect of the production. Set construction and costume design began in the summer. The cast spent that time learning the script. While supervised by adults, the students—about 200—were engaged in everything, from hair and makeup to sound engineering and lighting. Rehearsals started at the beginning of the school year, running usually from 3:30 until 7:30. On performance nights, the kids usually leave the theatre at 11 p.m., all the while still maintaining their regular academic workload, arriving at school at 8 a.m. the next morning.
“It was a collaborative effort in the truest sense,” said producer Kenneth Johnson. The rehearsals for Dreamgirls became a musical theatre workshop—a temporary one because the school can’t afford to offer such a program. Duke Ellington has a theatre department, a dance program, an instrumental music major and a vocal music curriculum. For Dreamgirls, the vocalists had to learn to dance and act; the theatre students were taught how to sing. And the experience of having to stretch beyond their capacities, said Johnson, was priceless in the development of a sought after life skill, becoming the kind of person “who can do what is needed, and do it well, at the drop of a hat.”
That training was evident when Jennifer Holliday performed at the Dreamgirls gala. It was decided to integrate her performance–singing the iconic torch ballad “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going,” and two other songs—into the play. Pullens said that Holliday, who arrived in Washington the morning of the gala, brought a CD with her music tracks, in case the students in the orchestra weren’t able to adapt to her charts, which she also brought. “The charts were in a totally different key. The songs were different renditions of the tunes the kids had been playing for the last four months,” he said.
In addition to the orchestra changes, the tech crew had to adjust the sound and lighting; all the pre-recorded cues, said Pullens “were thrown out the window. And we were telling the kids ‘this is what you’ve trained for. This is the real world.”
Holliday’s performance brought the crowd to their feet, and the orchestra, said director Linda Gravátt , read music charts they had only seen a few hours before by sight, and “performed like a Broadway pit band who has been working in the business for 20 years. These are 14, 15-year-old kids!” After the performance, Pullens said Holliday spent 30 minutes with the kids showering them with accolades and inspiration.
Senior Victoria Davis, one of two actors playing Effie White, said that doing Dreamgirls and meeting Jennifer Holliday enabled her to expand her perspective about her talents. Trained in opera, Davis said playing Effie challenged her, and “allowed me to tap into that part of me that’s bold, like Effie.” Now, she’s thinking about pursuing a career on Broadway.
Staging Dreamgirls was a huge gamble on many levels, said Pullens. “We didn’t have money. We used the rent money to produce this show, and if we failed, we’d be faced with laying off even more staff.”
But the gamble paid off. Their goal was to sell 6700 tickets, and they had sold 8,400 by December 10. The effort has empowered both the students and the staff. “We believed in the kids, and in this institution and the community’s willingness to support this production. And this is the kind of innovation we feel is important for educators to have.”
When it comes to next year’s budget shortfall, Pullens says that he and his staff will put their heads together again to address the issue, and come up with a creative solution. A few years ago, when schools across the District were laying off teachers, the Duke Ellington staff—from administrators to maintenance workers—agreed to take a one day a month furlough.
Still, Pullens finds it hard to believe that despite the high graduation rates and the accolades the school has received, Duke Ellington’s value is not recognized as it should be. “It’s a tragedy that we find ourselves in this precarious position as an arts school. Funding should be coming from everywhere,” he said.
“Last year we received 1700 applications. We could only accept 193 students. What this says to me is that we should be increasing funding. We should have multiple schools like Duke Ellington, places where these talented people who will become the artistic fabric that holds our culture together can learn how to inspire the masses in the ways that only an artist can.”
Tickets ($25 – $35) are available for the 4 remaining performances: Thurs & Fri, Dec 16 & 17 at 7:30pm and Sat, Dec 18 at 2pm and 7:30pm. at the Ellington Theatre, The Duke Ellington School of the Arts, 3500 R Street NW, Washington DC 20007. Order online or call 202 337-4825.