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Easin’ on down the yellow brick road for the final performances of “The Wiz” in the Martin Luther King School auditorium Friday and Saturday nights will be the eight leads and 95-member chorus of Brillianteen 2011. Behind the scenes are a youth showboard 25 strong, technical and business crews numbering around 100, a live orchestra and more than 30 adult volunteers.
This year’s production is the 60th for an institution that debuted in the McGaw YMCA basement in 1952. Brillianteen 2011 remains true to the mission of its founder and its YMCA sponsor: It includes all youth who wish to participate.
“Anyone who wants to can perform on stage (or behind stage), regardless of their level of experience or talent,” says director and 17-year show veteran Judy Kemp. The kids in “The Wiz” are not there because they edged out someone at a tryout. They are onstage simply because they chose to be.
Relieved of the competitive pressures endemic to their academic, athletic and social lives, most of the kids say they sign on to Brillianteen for the fun.
But the adults with whom they interact say many take away from the experience something more profound.
“Glowing confidence and seeing the fruit of their labor are the payoff for these teens,” says Shun Tucker, McGaw YMCA high school arts and volunteer coordinator.
The fact that no one is turned away poses challenges that everyone considers well worthwhile. Ms. Kemp remembers how the adult showboard puzzled over placing one teen who was “clearly not a strong singer and dancer.” They settled on a walk-on part that required neither song nor dance but allowed him to appear multiple times, staggering across the stage as a drunk.
The boy’s mother later told Ms. Kemp how “amazing” the Brillianteen experience had been for him. He returned the next year having practiced singing and dancing — and stepped right into the chorus.
Choreographer Cindi Schuneman, working her 27th show, takes her cue from her belief that “there are programs for ‘high’ and ‘low’ kids. My mission is to take care of the middle.”
While being onstage is new to most of the cast, some, like Rachel Spielman, have an extensive background – in her case, performance arts camp and until three knee surgeries, dance with an ensemble. Ronnie Cannon caught the theater bug doing plays at Bessie Rhodes School. Ms. Schuneman says her task is to create dance numbers complex enough to interest everyone and straightforward enough to be learned in six rehearsals.
No one is stuck in the back row. Ms. Schuneman says she makes sure “the back line rotates forward so that everyone gets a moment in the spotlight.” The kids “try hard,” she says. “They don’t want to look foolish.”
Just as they come with varying skills, the teens arrive at Brillianteen from divergent social and interest groups at Evanston Township High School. Spring and fall activities and sports tend to mesh more easily with the eight-week rehearsal schedule than winter ones.
The start of soccer season overlaps with performance week for Carly Norris, who earlier forfeited club soccer time for Brillianteen practices. Ronnie Cannon and “most of the baseball team,” says Ms. Kemp, are spending their preseason on stage. Sabrina D’Haiti participates on peer jury and Minority Student Achievement Network as well as in the home economics and business groups FCCLA and DECA.
Nicole Dorian runs cross-country and is on the board of Ambassadors, a group that mentors freshmen. Brillianteen filled a gap in her activity schedule and also helped sustain her lagging motivation in her senior year, she says.
The multicolored hue of this year’s troupe – evident without the wizardry of tinted glasses –– mirrors the rainbow of activities they represent. It has not always looked this way. Ms. Tucker, in her second year at the Y, ramped up the effort to achieve in the show a racial and ethnic mix that “authentically resembles Evanston,” she says.
Choosing “The Wiz” was the first step. A rock and soul retelling of the beloved Frank Baum story “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the big-budget musical with an all-black cast was a breakthrough for Broadway when it opened in 1975. In 2011 Evanston it proved a draw for African American teens.
To help recruit minority students, Ms. Tucker created a new position on the youth showboard. The youth talent coordinator — “someone everyone is cool with,” says Ms. Tucker – actively reached out to minority kids, attending student groups and talent shows and papering the neighborhoods with posters.
The diversity effort got results, says Ms. Tucker: Of 245 participants, Brillianteen 2011 boasts 25 African Americans, two Asians and two Latinos.
Participants come to Brillianteen with friends but mix it up in rehearsals. The show, says Ms. Tucker, lacks “the cafeteria pressure” that dictates that teens sit with their friends. Learning new steps in the company of unfamiliar people – what Ms. Tucker calls “spending vulnerable time together” – also helps the cast “build an intimate relationship,” she says. And “creating together” makes for “magical friendships, because [the kids] have something in common.”
“People who were acquaintances have become friends because they’re in the same numbers,” Carly says. Nicole is even more enthusiastic. “You meet a lot of people and get close to everyone,” she says, adding, “Everyone loves each other. It’s like a big support system.”
The kids came to Brillianteen for a good time – and were not disappointed. But like the lion, tin man and scarecrow in the story, the young performers took a risk and journeyed with their peers to a place where they could find their own courage, heart and brains.