The air is sticky in the Duke Ellington School of the Arts gym. Students are in their own little creative worlds—singers hum in a corner, a dancer pirouettes, a drummer sits behind his kit—until choreographer Charles Augins snaps them into focus: “Let’s go back and do this again.”
The singers and dancers stand ready. The drummer snaps a beat, and in seconds the room swells with the crescendos of “Steppin’ to the Bad Side”—one of 28 songs the teens will perform in their December stage production of Dreamgirls.
Every student in the school is playing a role in the musical’s run from December 2 through 18. Technical and design students built the rotating platform on which the Dreams perform. Museum-studies students created an exhibit in the lobby. Costume-design students are helping sew the 350-plus outfits.
In a classroom littered with sewing needles, scissors, and thread, senior Anastazia Whittle puts the finishing touches on a zebra-print jumpsuit that a Dream will wear during the song “One Night Only.”
The Duke Ellington production has plenty of glitz and glamour, and a lot is at stake. “There’s a million-dollar shortfall in our budget,” says head of school Rory Pullens. “Rather than waiting for someone to rescue us, we decided to use our large-scale production to create some revenue.”
All of the proceeds will benefit the school, which has offered free tuition to District residents since it opened in 1974. The school is run through a collaboration among DC Public Schools, the Kennedy Center, the Ellington Fund, and George Washington University. Comedian Dave Chappelle and opera star Denyce Graves are alums.
Because of budget cuts, the school has already laid off some part-timers, and Pullens hopes the musical will bring in $300,000 to prevent more layoffs. Tickets are $25 to $35 except on December 9—a gala night featuring a performance by original Broadway Dreamgirl Jennifer Holliday—when they’re $200.
“I’ve met President Obama, I’ve met Michelle, I’ve met Stevie Wonder,” says senior Anitra McKinney, who plays Effie, Holliday’s Tony Award–winning role. “But I feel like this is going to be different. I’m taking on a character that she was the first person ever to do.”
As the days tick down to showtime, there’s a buzz in the hallways, where 515 students chatter, and impromptu singing in the bathrooms between classes.
The school day at Ellington runs from 8:30 to 5, with mornings devoted to academics and afternoons focused on the arts. Many students stay until 8:30 for Dreamgirls rehearsal.
It’s a hectic schedule, but Lamar Gaskins is used to it. “I love what I’m doing,” he says, “so it’s like—whatever, who cares?”
When not memorizing his lines for the part of Curtis, singing in the Dreamgirls ensemble, or writing a paper for his British-literature class, Gaskins is practicing his theatrical monologues for college applications. His short list includes the Boston Conservatory, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the California Institute of the Arts.
Sitting across from him are Ambrym Smith and India Reynolds. Both girls dance and sing backup in the Dreamgirls ensemble. Smith, a junior, calls Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn her idol and hopes to act with the company after graduating from Fordham or Juilliard. Reynolds, also a junior, wants to learn more about musical theater next year. That’s after she tours with Alicia Keys’s makeup artist this summer and records some neo-soul tracks in the studio.
The three head back to the Dreamgirls rehearsal. There they’ll sweat, sing, and push themselves to their artistic limits—a real-life narrative of the dream they’ll perform onstage.