WEST FARGO — When the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre was casting for “Hairspray” in March, Lexi Francis jumped at the chance to play Motormouth Maybelle.
“That’s one of my dream roles,” Francis explains. “She’s such a luscious character, full of life, love and happiness.”
There’s another reason why the young actress wanted the part in the musical.
“I like to talk about hard subjects, and this takes us back to the reality of racism,” she says.
The musical, which opens Saturday night, July 25, at The Lights at Sheyenne 32 in West Fargo, is as much about message as it is song and dance. The story follows Tracy Turnblad, a “pleasantly plump” white teenage girl, and her desire to dance on a 1962 music TV show in Baltimore. She makes the most of her appearance and pushes for the show’s racial integration.
Addressing racism may have seemed like a secondary theme when the show was first created, but as America is forced to deal with intolerance and injustice today, the Black and white storylines are in the spotlight.
Leading up to this weekend’s opening, director Adam Pankow and cast and crew have gathered outside of rehearsals to have frank conversations about racial issues.
“In light of the world we’re living in and this show, with its message of inclusivity, it would be irresponsible not to talk about race, especially in the context of this show,” Pankow says.
Pankow previously directed "Hairspray" in 2011 at West Fargo High School, but didn’t have conversations to this extent then.
“That’s a change for the better in 2020,” he says. “As a society, why are we afraid to talk about these things? The educator in me sees the teaching opportunity there.”
He first approached people of color in the production, like Francis, to ask them how they would feel about sharing their perspective on racial issues. Resoundingly, they were in favor of it.
Noah Roddy, who plays Seaweed Stubbs, a black dancer who falls for Tracy’s white friend, Penny, says it’s a storyline he can relate to.
“Coming from a mixed-race background, it hits home. So I was wanting to tell the story on stage,” Roddy says.
He was concerned that talks with cast and crew would be one-sided, with people of color speaking up and white participants reluctant to open up. Instead, a dialogue emerged from all.
“We tried to make it a real conversation, not, for a lack of a better term, Black people yelling at white people,” Francis says. “They can say ‘the wrong thing’ and it will be OK. I want them to open their eyes and understand our perspective and we can understand their perspective. Even a knock on the door is different for people like us.”
“Everyone has a different perspective on how we are reconciling with race. As long as we move the needle forward, I think we’re moving in the right way,” Pankow says.
Francis says that after the conversations, some of the white actors realized that some things written as “jokes” in the text of the musical, really weren’t intended to be funny.
The musical is based on John Waters’ 1988 campy movie of the same name. Waters grew up with “The Buddy Deane Show” in Baltimore, and modeled his fictitious “Corny Collins Show” after it. The major difference is that when “The Buddy Deane Show” faced calls for integration in 1963, the TV station canceled the program.
In the musical, “Corny Collins Show” only allows Black people to dance on “Negro Day,” the last Thursday of every month, hosted by Motormouth Maybelle. Tracy’s introduction to Maybelle and and her children, Seaweed and L’il Inez, encourages her to push for the show’s integration.
Roddy says that while the conversations among cast and crew may have been prompted by Pankow, they never felt rushed in an attempt to sweep things under the rug and move on. The result can be seen in the production.
“The camaraderie among actors was stronger and closer as a unit,” he says.
That’s all the more important when staging a musical in the middle of a pandemic.
Roddy says the cast and crew all wear masks backstage, and he trusts everyone to not risk exposure when they’re not working on the show.
“We all have each others’ backs. I completely trust these people are taking care of themselves outside of rehearsals,” he says. “We have developed a closeness only theater can bring you to.”
Pankow says the production will embrace the wide-open performance space of The Lights at Sheyenne 32, allowing for more room between performers during song and dance numbers.
He says the set was minimized some to remove high-touch props like doors. He calls the production a “staged concert version of the musical.”
“It’s been a breath of fresh air to create again and use our minds and bodies in a way we haven’t for months,” he says.
Having a safe and sound production is important not just for the benefit of the cast and crew, but also so audiences can see and hear the show’s message.
“This story really needs to be told at this time in this community,” Francis says.
If you go
What: Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre’s “Hairspray”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 25, and Sunday, July 26; performances also are planned for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 29, Thursday, July 30, and Friday, July 31
Where: The Lights at Sheyenne 32, 3100 Sheyenne St., West Fargo
Info: Tickets range from $15 to $25 for reserved seating and $10 to $15 for general admission/bring your own chair. Tickets must be purchased at least one day in advance, and will call will not be available. Staff and volunteers will help find spots for groups up to eight to ensure social distancing. For more info on the production and safety precautions, visit https://www.fmct.org/.