'Hairspray' helps students tackle race, inclusion
Diana Dresser likes it when the losers win.
“As a parent, I love this story,” she says of “Hairspray,” which opens Thursday night and concludes the Lawrence Arts Center’s 2013 Summer Youth Theater series.
The Broadway smash based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who dreams of joining the cast of “The Corny Collins Show,” an afternoon teen dance program in 1962 Baltimore.
The show’s bigoted producer and her equally cruel daughter are opposed to allowing Tracy on and to integrating the cast. Naturally, Tracy joining the show sets off a series of changes set against the backdrop of racial tension at the height of the civil rights movement.
“John Waters writes all of his films for the losers to be the winners,” Dresser says. “That’s what I love about this story. It flips around what usually happens. The bullies don’t win.”
The theme of this year’s Summer Youth Theater has been history, and “Hairspray” fits in perfectly. Set in the '60s, it forces its young actors to learn about the time period and the issues of the day.
“I’m so grateful to the Arts Center,” Dresser says of the educational portion of the program. “They did a lot of the work for me with the panel discussions on race relations and '60s pop culture and the other events they’ve had. They really did a great job of preparing the kids for this material.”
Not that Dresser didn’t spend some time on it herself. Not only did she and other SYT staffers talk with the cast about race, the students discussed it with each other. “Hairspray” has a lot of African-American characters, and that required a diverse cast.
“Race is still very much an issue for kids,” Dresser says. “Obviously, kids in Lawrence don’t deal with it as regularly as, say, kids in a big city, but it’s there, and they’re aware of it.”
Casting a show like “Hairspray” proved to be challenging. Dresser found herself short of enough African-American actors to fill all the roles the script called for. She found herself casting students with dark skin but who weren’t black.
“That led to some very interesting discussions on differences,” she says. “Some of the kids had to find answers to the question of what does it mean to play someone of a different race than I am.”
She sees that as an opportunity, though, rather than a problem.
“Because it’s an educational project, I think it’s OK to stretch the boundaries,” she says. “The reason you do this show today is it’s a really refreshing take on race.”
But if “Hairspray” is set amid the racial tensions of the '60s South, it is not a depressing or heavy piece. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“The campiness of it allows people to say things about race they could not if it weren’t campy,” Dresser notes.
And “Hairspray” is fun. Packed with catchy songs and a lot of dance numbers, it’s been entertaining audiences since its 2002 debut.
“The dancing in this show is probably the most dancing ever seen in a Summer Youth Theater piece,” Dresser says. “There are tons of huge production numbers with a huge cast.”
And, again, there’s that theme of the usual losers winning.
“It’s really about inclusion,” Dresser says. “Tracy just wants to be included, and she can’t understand why she can’t be. She just wants the black kids to be included, and she can’t understand why they can’t be.”
That’s something to sing about. This weekend, Summer Youth Theater will be doing exactly that.
“Hairspray” opens Thursday at the Lawrence Arts Center and continues Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except Sunday, when it is 3 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-843-2787 or online at lawrenceartscenter.org.
— Full disclosure: John Phythyon is a paid staff member of Summer Youth Theater.