Premiered on Broadway in 1949 and revived in 2008, South Pacific tells the story of American naval officers (both nurses and sailors) stationed on an island during World War II who are forced to confront their own racist attitudes amidst love and war.
This month the musical comes to life on stage at Charlottesville High School. CHS drama teacher and director David Becker says he was compelled to do the show even before August 12, partly to inform his students about the musical theater songbook pre-1960, but also because, “We’re still trying to learn how it’s even possible that people can be bigoted or hateful,” he says. “And so, while it is what appears to be an old piece, its message is more relevant than ever.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts Center at Charlottesville High School
Senior Kayla Gavin plays the female lead, Nellie, an American nurse, for three out of the four performances. Nellie is in love with Emile, a French ex-pat, but withdraws when she learns he had a previous relationship with a Polynesian woman and fathered two children with her. Over the course of the musical, Nellie has a change of heart. Although Nellie’s initial prejudices make her a challenging character to play, Gavin says, “I like the idea that love is greater than any kind of prejudice so that makes me feel more connected to the character.”
Valery Duron, also a senior, plays Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese woman who sells local wares to the Americans, and encourages Lieutenant Cable to marry her daughter, Liat. While Cable and Liat love each other, Cable eventually declines her hand because of her race. “Especially now and in our community, I feel like this show can really get to people,” Duron says.
Surrounding these interpersonal dramas is the larger-scale drama of the war itself. Through the character of Captain Brackett, senior Liam Hubbard explores the challenges of war. Hubbard describes his character as a warmonger who “has this sort of gut drive to keep the conquest going.” But he also “has this peripheral feeling of, what’s the end cost of this and are the measures that we’re taking really worth it?”
One way Becker has tried to engage young people with these issues is through the music and dance. “It’s probably one of the most lush, most memorable scores of musical theater written during the golden age,” he says. “What I was really interested in doing with the show was finding a way to bridge then with now.” Enter Torain Braxton, a senior who’s been dancing since she could walk. Becker asked her to add contemporary movement to Bloody Mary’s song “Happy Talk,” as well as some other numbers.
The result, Becker says, makes the show less “rigid and inaccessible. …With older pieces we have to find ways to excite the viewer, the actors, the creative people, to entice them into being involved. Sometimes it takes pizza, too.”
What has been most meaningful to Braxton about this collaborative experience is the “commitment and passion and love that we create in this whole production,” she says. “It’s going to be a really good show.”
While Braxton was drawn to the production through dance, senior Beau LeBlond, who plays Emile, was drawn to it through song. “I got into it because I started taking voice lessons for choir,” he says. He learned to sing “Some Enchanted Evening” as part of his vocal training well before auditions opened. When he learned Becker was putting on South Pacific, he thought, why not audition?
Another student, Alyce Yang, lent her creative talents by drawing the scenic backdrops. Yang drew her inspiration chiefly from the 1958 film adaptation. “There were a lot of beautiful scenes and colors used that aren’t actually seen in nature,” she says. Moved by “the power of the colors,” she drew her own scenes with Adobe Illustrator.
“We involve everybody when we put on our shows at CHS,” Becker says. In this production, that even includes two young children of faculty member Tina Vasquez, teacher of English Language Learners at CHS. Her daughter and son, Ariana and Leo, will play Emile’s children, Ngana and Jerome.
The diverse program includes LGBTQ students, students from different countries, first-year language learners and students of color. “That is Charlottesville,” Becker says, and it’s important to him that kids acknowledge the diverse makeup of their community. “Theater is community,” he says, “We can learn about how to improve our communities if we go and see how theaters run and how they work because it’s all collaboration.”