Sunday night, I watched a documentary called “Mariachi High,” which follows the fortunes of the mariachi ensemble at Zapata High School in a sleepy Rio Grande border town in Texas. The film is, more than anything else, about how a music teacher with a passion for tradition has created a reason for high school kids from a rural Mexican-American community with a high dropout rate to pour their hearts into something, and, in the process, learn to love school.
This week’s feature follows the cast and production team of Albemarle High School’s spring musical, Hello, Dolly! and reminds us how important the hours after the last bell can be. When everyone who is dying to get the hell out of there is gone, the kids who stay open up like night-blooming flowers. Cliques melt away, ages don’t matter, and being cool becomes about pleasing the adults who cared enough to stick around and teach you something they know how to do well. In the process, they open you up to a world that’s not just for kids. As AHS Theater Director Fay Cunningham says in the story, “We don’t do high school theater.”
Cunningham, I understand, has built a juggernaut of a drama program that routinely cranks out $30,000 productions from a base budget of $500 per year. Down the road at Monticello High School, Theater Director Madeline Michel is trying to build the same kind of tradition at a school that’s only 15 years old. Her kids—white, black, and Latino—are about to stage In the Heights, a play about race and identity in the mixed up part of Manhattan called Washington Heights, which was an old Jewish neighborhood that bordered on the heart of Harlem and slowly, and then not so slowly, turned Dominican. I lived there for two years just out of college. The fish market was Korean.
Race and gentrification are important news themes in Charlottesville, not because, as in NYC, they are imminent forces that will change our landscape the way a hurricane changes the beach, but because our small affluent city has the chance to deal with them better. To make music from the mashup. ¿Ya comprende?