March 12 was supposed to be opening night for the Century High School drama club’s spring production. But that afternoon, instead of fretting over lines and fixing each other’s makeup, it seemed like almost everyone was crying.
Lucas Hewitt, the club’s director, had gotten a phone call from the school principal mere hours before his students were set to step out onto the stage. Along with announcing the closure of all public schools in the state for two weeks, Gov. Larry Hogan had just banned gatherings of more than 250 people. And, as the principal told Hewitt, that meant the troupe’s debut performance — along with those scheduled to take place over the next few nights — was canceled.
Oluoma Anude, a freshman at the time, remembers standing in shock in the girls’ dressing room. She’d already started putting on her makeup for the night’s performance.
“It took me such a long time to process that everything that we’d been working so hard for, staying at school until like 7 p.m. for every single day, had been flushed down the drain,” she said. “All because of a little microscopic virus.”
More than seven months later, the set for the drama club’s spring performance has yet to be completely taken down from the high school’s stage. But Hewitt and his students haven’t let themselves be bogged down by curtain abruptly falling.
Instead, they’ve since moved onto their next big project: A cathartic reel of spoken word poetry, songs and skits that all aim to capture what they’ve experienced since the pandemic first bore down upon Maryland.
And on Nov. 14, the virtual curtain will rise on the debut performance of the Century High School Opening Knights’ Quarantine Cabaret.
Over the last few months, the students have been refining the creative projects they’ve dreamed up for the cabaret with the help of Hewitt and his co-director, Caitlin Hewitt, a school counselor at Liberty High School who is also his wife. The production’s 26 acts range from original songs written and performed by Century students to time-lapsed clips of them painting or sculpting pieces of art that reflect their time in quarantine.
Without costumes to purchase or a set to finagle, the drama club is hoping to recover the $3,000 to $4,000 it lost as a result of the spring production being canceled. But the goal of the cabaret transcends financial pragmatism: Hewitt says, more than anything, he wanted to give students the chance to share their perspective on what has transpired since March.
“One of my main priorities is, I want the students to feel really good about themselves,” he said. “I want them to be proud of something that they created, and give them the opportunity to share their story with the community.”
So much will be different about this production. For one, so that the club doesn’t have to worry about technical difficulties, the students won’t be performing their pieces live. Instead, they’ll be sending recordings of their acts or projects to Hewitt, who will then knit the footage together with the help of other students.
Still, students have been brainstorming and rehearsing their pieces for months with the help of Hewitt and his two assistant directors, who are former members of the troupe themselves.
Anude, for instance, spent weeks pouring her heart into a piece of spoken word poetry that she’ll be performing. The final product delivers a powerful message about racial injustice — a topic that Anude, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, was nervous about broaching in a majority white county. Bolstered by Hewitt’s encouragement, though, she dove right in.
But when she plopped onto her bed to write the piece, “I was like, crap,” she said.
“I didn’t know where to start because I can’t sound accusatory, but I’m supposed to make a point,” Anude said. “It was a struggle, I’m not gonna lie. … I wanted it to be captivating and moving, and at the same time, I didn’t want [my audience] to take offense.”
As she wrote, though, the poem — which Anude ultimately entitled, “The Deadlier Disease” — began to take shape. Now, she said, laughing, she’s sure her older sister could perform the piece herself, she’s heard Anude practicing it so much.
Other pieces included in the cabaret take on a less serious tone. Molly McHugh and her friend knew they wanted to perform a scene for the production, and McHugh said Hewitt encouraged them to write up something on the sillier side. The duo will be presenting their take on the scientifically problematic debate swirling around masks. No spoilers, but McHugh may or may not don an inflatable T-Rex suit during the skit.
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McHugh, who is now a junior at Century, has been involved with the school’s drama club since her freshman year. She’s since become secretary of the organization, which she — and just about everyone else in the troupe — describes as a family. However, she said, the club’s executive board has been struggling to keep everyone in the organization engaged and connected in a completely virtual environment. The club usually starts the year off with a picnic, where everyone can meet the new members, but they weren’t able to host one this year.
“Mr. Hewitt has been sending me the emails of all the people who want to get connected [to the club], and I’ve been trying to put them in the GroupMe and introduce them to people, but it’s hard,” she said. “I’ve never seen them in-person, and they’ve never seen anyone else in person.”
But on the cabaret’s opening night, all of the drama club members and their families will be invited to spread out across a farm owned by one of the members, and watch the performance play out on an inflatable projection screen. They’ll be far out from one another — and will likely have to be bundled up beneath blankets — but the club is hoping the experience will spark up the feelings of community that students have been missing so much.
Seeing her friends in-person and sitting in a crowd — those are things that Mackenzie Houldson, the club’s president, has realized that she took for granted in life before the pandemic. But she says the biggest lesson she’s taken away from the last few months is that dwelling on the past doesn’t lead to anything good. Instead, she says, you should try to appreciate every moment.
That’s the message she says she wants to convey in the song she wrote and will be singing in the cabaret: a tune she’s calling, “Have Some Hope With Me.”
“While this has been an absolutely insane year — and these past six or seven months have been mayhem — things will be OK,” she said. “As long as we stick together and keep on movin’ along, things will get better.”
Tickets for the Quarantine Cabaret’s two livestreams — one on Nov. 14 and one on Nov. 21 — are $15 for an individual viewing link and $40 for a group viewing link. Tickets are available for purchase at showtix4u.com.