The genius of Wendell Tabb and Hillside High School’s ‘The Color Purple’

Henry J. Pankey
Henry J. Pankey

It would be easy, and justified, to affirm Hillside High School’s “The Color Purple” as just another exemplary Broadway-quality musical. However, the collaborative efforts of faculty, community, students, designers, choreographers, musicians, coaches, artists, performers and legendary director Wendell Tabb merit more.

The media often stereotypes our K-12 academic institutions as bastions of bullets, bullies and books. This high school creation, however, demonstrated our students’ unheralded talents of drama, music, dance and art, as well as interpersonal communication.

It was a formidable showcase of genius ignored in standardized tests. Infidelity, father-daughter taboos, Christian fabricators, domestic abuse, same-sex relationships, sisterhood, and the extraordinary power of affection were subliminal and overt issues at the heart of Alice Walker’s work.

The dancers effectively merged Afrocentric, ballet and modern dance techniques, thanks to the creative choreography of Valencia Lipscomb and Toya Chinfloo. An additional commendation is appropriate for orchestra director Brian Crews. If we had a Bull City Tony award, technical director Gregory Wade and numerous members of the production staff would be advised to rent, buy a tuxedo or other formal wear.

Zion Hinton’s multi-dimensional Celie previewed a potential career in the entertainment industry. With persistence, good management and luck, her emotional vocal delivery of a character’s soul should get the attention of producers and casting directors. Star power is in her DNA.

Durham may remember Jalen McKoy as a track competitor, but his strong stage presence, articulation, charisma and acting ability made his Mister the character we love to hate but wanted to see more. Being a handsome is another facet that enhances his television or movie marketability.

The community megaphone announcement that Shug Avery was coming to town was neither a disappointment nor hyperbole. Corinthia Morris played the part with the passion, vocalization and flair of the most seasoned professional. Her singing was a joy to behold.

The entertainment business is a difficult one, and it is highly recommended that aspiring performers have dual pursuits of major and minor careers. However, the current predictions are this generation may have five careers during their lifetime. (Keep in mind that those who have given up on their dreams will discourage yours.) Thus, go for it!

Properly marketed, shows like Hillside’s ‘The Color Purple’ could be Durham Public Schools’ prototype’s gold mine for recruiting and retaining students whose parents believe charter schools are better. We should provide massive support for any program like Hillside that has an International Student Exchange Program enabling students to tour and present in Cuba, Australia, Africa, Peru, Brazil, Japan, England Santa Cruz, and parts of the United States including New York and Los Angeles.

Director Wendell Tabb decided against a career on Broadway, choosing instead to establish a program that would bring Broadway stars to Durham. Such a feat gives the Bull City bragging rights. Tabb rightfully received an honorary Tony award. Genius should be emblazoned on his resume for dedicating over 32 years of service to our school system and community. My limited ability as a wordsmith does not let me adequately praise an individual who has positively impacted thousands of young people. (Thank you, Wendell.).

Productions like Hillside’s “The Color Purple” show that the Durham Public Schools can be an entertainment venue as potent as DPAC. Hopefully, our local leaders understand, this was more than another mesmerizing Broadway show.

Henry J. Pankey author and education consultant, was Durham Public Schools principal of the year in 2000. He can be reaced at eaglehjp@aol.com

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