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Simsbury's 'Hairspray' Aims At Deeper Issues

Simsbury High School is using the school’s musical production as a way to talk to students about issues of race and discrimination.

The musical Hairspray is set in 1962 Baltimore.

Teenager Tracy Turnblad has secured a spot on the Corny Collins Show, a local TV dance show. The dancers on the show are white, but once a month the show has “Negro Day.” Tracy, who is white, campaigns to make the show integrated.

Last year, a photo surfaced on social media of two Simsbury High students in blackface. And it’s the controversy stemming from that event that the school hopes to address, in part, with its work on Hairspray.

Stuart Younse is the school’s theater director. Speaking on Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live, he said the musical has been a great way to discuss issues like discrimination with the multiracial cast, as well as the school community.

“First of all, we hired Dr. DeRon Williams, who is an African American theater professor at Eastern Connecticut State University,” said Younse. “He came in and did a full week with us about segregation, about racism, and was able to really help the students react to the play itself.”

And earlier this month, the school hosted a panel discussion on racism, discrimination and the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

“You definitely get your eyes opened from that experience because you’re basically hearing someone else’s story who’s directly in front of you, so you can feel it more,” said senior Shamar Sutton, who plays Duane in the show. “I don’t think you can gain the same thing from reading a book.”

Senior Ainsley Thompson plays Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s best friend. She said the show is chock-full of lessons about racism and tolerance, like the song Run and Tell That.

“It is this jazzy, bluesy, happy song about how there is absolutely no reason why anyone should dislike someone who’s African American because of their skin,” she said.

Simsbury High School’s production of Hairspray is this weekend and next.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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