by Susan Fried
The Teen Summer Musical is an institution in Seattle. For many years Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center and Teen Summer Musical director Isiah Anderson worked with dozens of young people over eight to 10 weeks every summer to create a world class, large-scale musical production. In 2019, performances of Uncle Willy’s Chocolate Factory played to full houses at Benaroya Hall and included 60 young people performing amazing choreography and singing incredible original music. In 2020, there was no Teen Musical. Like most annual events it was canceled due to COVID-19.
The Teen Summer Musical has returned for 2021, though in an abbreviated form. This year’s production is made possible by Acts On Stage, The Voices Project, the Associated Recreation Council, and Seattle Parks and Recreation. Fifteen young people between 12 and 18 years old will be dancing and singing in an original musical Story of an Off-Brand Band written by Michelle Lang-Raymond and adapted and directed by Isiah Anderson, with original music by Lang-Raymond and musical director Cedric Thomas. About half of the cast and many of the staff have either performed in or were a part of the crew in past Teen Musical productions. By the first performance of this year’s musical, the cast and crew will have put in 5 weeks of hard work, Monday through Friday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, at the Acts on Stage Theatre space in White Center, co-founded by Michelle Lang-Raymond and Isiah Anderson.
The experience of acting and singing in the Teen Summer Musical is a great way for young people to spend a portion of their summer and creates lifelong friendships. Jayden Walker, 13, who has been in two other Teen Musicals, Cinderella and Uncle Willy’s Chocolate Factory, said, “[The Teen Musical] is a great bonding experience to get with a lot of people and do something fun, and it’s something to distract us from summer and not doing anything, you know; it’s us, just having fun.”
On the surface this year’s Teen Summer Musical is about a traveling band, but on a deeper level Story of an Off-Brand Band subtly examines racism by asking if everyone in the band is being treated the same way; is every band member equally respected?
After one of their rehearsals the cast did a Q&A with some of the production crew. They discussed Black Lives Matter and whether they talked about the movement with friends and family, especially after the killing of George Floyd.
Vashti Randolph, 17, who plays *Blank Chequelle in the musical said the topic of race has become a more frequent conversation among her family and friends since the pandemic started. She said she is very passionate about issues around racism. Randolph said she was glad she was having the conversations.
“I try to keep an awareness about it as much as possible, not just our racial issues but everyone’s racial issues, and problems worldwide. I try to share that as much as possible. It’s become more of a conversation with my friend groups since the pandemic started because it was more in your face, there was no way to ignore it or look away from it. Or pretend it wasn’t happening.”
Other members of the cast said the pandemic and the protests around George Floyd’s murder had forced them to confront the issue and talk with their classmates, friends, and family.
The Story of an Off-Brand Band is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Try not to miss it. This year the Teen Summer Musical will be performed in parks throughout South Seattle on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at 1:00 p.m. from July 27 through August 19 and is free to the public.
To catch Teen Summer Musical: Story of an Off-Brand Band this summer, check out the 2021 performance schedule below:
- July 27 — Genesee Park
- July 29 — Jefferson Park
- August 3 — Powell Barnett Park
- August 5 — MLK Memorial Park
- August 10 — Pratt Park
- August 12 — Yesler Terrace Park
- August 17 — Seward Park
- August 19 — Othello Park
*Blank Chequelle references a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in which he said America has written a “blank check to the Negro people that has come back with insufficient funds.”
Susan Fried is a 40-year veteran photographer. Her early career included weddings, portraits, commercial work — plus she’s been The Skanner’s Seattle photographer for 25 years. Her images have appeared in the University of Washington Daily, the Seattle Globalist, Crosscut, and many more. She’s been an Emerald contributor since 2015. Follow her on Instagram @fried.susan.
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