Just a few years ago, the students of the Academy at Palumbo were performing under the dull glow of an old overhead transparency projector.
The Bella Vista high school, however, eventually swapped its makeshift illumination for authentic, high-tech stage lights.
Similar to its technology, the thespians of Palumbo’s emerging theater program have also been evolving since its inception.
When she arrived at the South Philly high school five years ago, Palumbo teacher Anissa Weinraub gradually transformed a few acting classes into a comprehensive theater program that, currently, not only produces a full-scale musical each spring but hosts a one-act play festival, maintains a residency with Philadelphia Young Playwrights and even performs original work at the Wilma Theatre.
Starting out shows in a cramped “black box theater” classroom, the program soon graduated to the school’s stage.
“Now, since we’re really coming up, just being alive and just bringing the school’s name and letting it intertwine with the theater department…just coming from the black box to the stage or wherever we rehearsed at,” said senior Sarai Morris. “It’s nothing different. It’s just a bigger stage. It’s just a bigger platform where we can express ourselves.”
Palumbo attributes some of its growth to a $14,000 Teacher-Leader Collaborative Grant it received a couple of years ago, which helped fund the technology and other resources to present big-name shows, such as its April production of “In the Heights,” a rap and salsa-fused, Tony Awarding-winning musical by “Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Having put on “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Urinetown” the last two years, the troupe felt confident to tackle “In the Heights,” which, they say, aligned well with the group’s mission.
While the rapping and salsa may have been a bit daunting, the show revealed an element of performance that’s an alternative to high schoolers’ potential preconceived notions of theater.
“I really saw our mission as to show people what we’re capable of and showing that theater is a cool thing to do…this is an art form where we can express ourselves,” said senior Mark Duong, who played the role of Usnavi. “And me, as a person who doesn’t really express how I feel, this was an escape where I can really do something that is out of my comfort zone.”
Beyond singing and dancing, the show pushed students out of their comfort zone on a cultural level as well.
The team decided on “In the Heights” not solely based on its contemporary theatrical style but also because of its ability to elevate the experience of Hispanics in the United States.
During rehearsals, the cast and crew say they frequently consulted with fellow Hispanic students about certain dialogue, language and references throughout the script.
The production, they hope, would concurrently help Hispanic students feel more welcomed in the school, as they are considered a minority in Palumbo.
“Doing this musical, I’ve learned a lot,” said senior Mon Cheri Veney, who played Vanessa. “This was a Latin musical, so we learned salsa. And, when I was first learning the salsa…I was not very good at it, but as we moved forward with the musical, even learning the Spanish language, I feel like, we’ve become more culturally aware of the Hispanic culture.”
On personal levels, the cast and crew attribute their experiences with the theater to not only opening their minds but unearthing empowerment within themselves.
While all the seniors involved with “In the Heights,” paved their own way toward Palumbo’s theater program, they all say the experience has shaped them in some form or another – whether becoming less shy or releasing anxiety.
“Over the course of the three musicals we’ve done,”said senior and dance captain Aaliyah Foye, who played Abuela Claudia, “I’ve gained confidence as an actress and confidence within myself, really, just through doing theater-related things…and that’s always what resonates with me at the end of every show and every performance, so I feel like everyone else feels that, too. Even if you don’t want to go to college for it.”
While some seniors are pursuing biochemistry and veterinary majors next year, a few are continuing their theatrical studies both in Philadelphia and New York City.
But, before they part ways, the troupe is performing one final show at the Wilma on Tuesday, April 30. Through the WILMAGINATION, a program of theater-based residencies in Philly high schools, the Palumbo students are producing an original one-act work surrounding grief and mental health.
And when the curtain finally falls on their high school career, Weinraub is certain her students’ musical and non-musical flairs will flourish beyond Palumbo’s stage.
“They’re incredible people and have really set a tradition,” she said. “…I want to help people develop into their most whole, healed, expressive selves, and like I’ve said to them, their spirits are going to go out there in this world and really change things, because our world is a crappy place and they need the energy of this room.”