Founded in 1875, Sumner High was established as the first high school for African American students this side of the Mississippi. In its nearly 150 years, the high school has provided the educational foundation for scores of prominent Black individuals in every industry and profession, including entertainment. Rock icon Tina Turner was among the brightest of those alumni stars, and on November 17, cast members of the first national tour of TINA - the Tina Turner Musical visited her former high school.
The afternoon started with a question and answer session between cast members and the school's art curriculum students in the auditorium (the new auditorium, built in 1963; the original auditorium — where Chuck Berry, class of 1946, once performed — is now the school library). Many of the students had attended a matinee performance the previous day, and their questions showed reflection and genuine curiosity and elicited deep, thoughtful responses from the performers.
Many of the most interesting exchanges revolved around the violence portrayed in the show. Dance captain Jeff Sullivan explained how the fights are carefully choreographed and rehearsed an hour before each performance, adding that "communication is a must, and we adjust as needed based on each performer's comfort level that day." Roz White, who portrays Tina's mother Zelma, responded to one student's insightful question about the toll the show takes on the performers' emotions and psyche with honesty and an emphasis on self-care. White described the techniques she uses to center and separate herself from her role in some detail while emphasizing its importance and the benefits of structured breathing, ending with the popular advice to "go outside and get in touch with the natural world when you can."
After the performance, students split into two groups for special sessions, with one group exploring scene work and auditions and the other dance and choreography. The rest of the cast took a guided tour of the school that began in the Hall of Legends outside the auditorium. The hall features framed portraits of notable Sumner graduates, including tennis star Arthur Ashe, activist and comedian Dick Gregory, Tuskegee airman Wendell O. Pruitt, trumpeter Lester Bowie and many others. Each portrait was made by a student, and the majority are hand drawn; principal Ronda Wallace informed the group that Turner's portrait is in progress.
The tour also showcased a student-painted portrait of Chuck Berry and murals, including a large, brightly colored mural featuring Turner at the height of her stardom.
The cast members looked in on fashion and photography classes before heading to a room that includes a small recording booth, various computers and electronics from multiple eras and long tables stacked with artifacts. The students have an active archival program and are currently digging into a wealth of information and artifacts from Turner's life, including studio recordings, costumes, ticket stubs and programs from her earliest performances on, and some childhood and teen memorabilia.
One of the most moving parts of the day was seeing the almost six-foot-long sharecropper's cotton picking bag, just like the one young Anna-Mae Bullock used before she moved to St. Louis, changed her name and became the queen of rock & roll. It was eye-opening to the performers, particularly the petite Parris Lewis, one of the two women portraying the adult Tina Turner. The moment highlighted the impact of the cast visit, which was an inspiring exchange for everyone involved. The Fabulous Fox is to be commended for its assistance in arranging the event.
TINA is playing at the Fabulous Fox Theatre (527 North Grand Boulevard, fabulousfox.com) through Sunday, November 26. Showtimes vary, and tickets are $29 to $140.
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