Folding and camping chairs formed a half circle around a makeshift stage set up on the basketball court at Jefferson Park in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. The poles and netting keeping golf balls in the driving range loomed high in the background, as audience members sought shade under umbrellas, tents and trees.
“This feels like home, this feels like family, this feels like community,” Director Michelle Lang-Raymond says to open the show. Lang-Raymond and Isiah Anderson are the longtime directors of Seattle’s popular Teen Summer Musical, which highlights some of the brightest youth stars in summer performances of classic stories with timely social justice themes.
The coronavirus pandemic halted 2020’s production, but with a few differences, the show goes on this year. Lang-Raymond and Anderson formed a nonprofit theater company last year called “Acts on Stage,” which focuses on highlighting artists of color and of faith. Acts on Stage is producing the program this year, rebranded to Beyond! Teen Summer Musical with support from Seattle Parks and Recreation, which is hosting eight scheduled outdoor performances in Seattle parks.
Usually, Teen Summer Musical is hosted in fancy theaters, like Benaroya Hall, after a nine-week rehearsal schedule with 80-90 youth performers and a full band, elaborate sets and costumes. This year, it scaled back to five intense weeks of practice and four weeks of a mix of outdoor and indoor performances, along with a few shorter pop-ups around the city.
Historically, the productions have been adaptations of familiar stories, like Willy Wonka or the Wizard of Oz, but this year, the show is totally original too. “Story of an Off-Brand Band” is a story about a traveling band, fitting for a show that travels around the city, performing in different parks along the way.
Lang-Raymond wrote the original play, called “The Guitar Section,” in reaction to the death of Michael Brown, killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. She was living in Portland at the time, an overwhelmingly white city. “I was watching people have well-intended conversations but they were terrible,” she said.
The story, adapted to musical theater for this production, follows a traveling band, whose members should be treated as equals per their contract, but one section is constantly being slighted. While every other member of the band gets help loading and offloading gear, setting up their equipment, ample time for meals and preparations before every show, the guitar player is constantly left out of receiving any help and blamed for their anger at the discrepancies. “They experience a kind of injustice along the way that they kind of write off, until they can’t anymore,” said Lang-Raymond.
Themes of racism and inequality run through the story line. For example, the name of the main character, “Blank Chequille,” the guitar player, was inspired by the “bad check” analogy in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Instead of honoring the promises in the Constitution, King said “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
When Lang-Raymond first workshopped the script, it was with a group of Black male college students, who told her that it helped them explain themselves when they got emotional trying to sort through complicated feelings of injustice. “I wrote this for white people,” she said, “but this is just as impactful of a tool for those who are trying to speak as those who have the heart to listen.”
Beyond! Teen Summer Musical is scheduled to perform in these Seattle parks Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1PM.
Aug. 3 — Powell Barnett Park
Aug. 5 — MLK Memorial Park
Aug. 10 — Pratt Park
Aug. 12 — Yesler Park
Aug. 17 — Seward Park
Aug. 19 — Othello Park
For more information on these and other performance opportunities check out Acts on Stage on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ActsOnStageInc