BHS drama students stage original musical

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Nathan Smith and Madisen Froneberger sing a duet during rehearsals for “Rising Ashes.” Photo by Steve Guntli

By Steve Guntli

Blaine High School’s advanced theater class will be staging an original musical based on the singular life of an African/German Holocaust survivor.

“Rising Ashes: The Hans J. Massaquoi Story” is being billed as a “docu-musical,” and is based on “Destined to Witness,” Massaquoi’s autobiography published in 1999.

Senior Nathan Smith, who won the Washington State Male Solo Vocalist of the Year award from the state thespian society in 2015, will star as Massaquoi. BHS drama teacher Shari Akers wrote the script and the music, which includes 15 original songs.

The story details Massaquoi’s experiences growing up as a mixed-race man in Hitler’s Germany. The son of a German nurse and a Liberian prince, Massaquoi’s cultural struggles were only exacerbated by pressure from the royal family back in Africa and the growing culture of fear and intolerance in his native Germany. Massaquoi survived the Holocaust, and then briefly went back to Africa before deciding to immigrate to the United States. There, he became the first editor of “Ebony” magazine and a powerful voice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Massaquoi died in 2013 at the age of 87.

Smith read “Destined to Witness” last year and suggested the story as the topic for this year’s original production. Smith said the story appealed to him on a personal level.

“This guy was mixed race, like me, and Germany and World War II have always held such fascination for me,” he said. “You hear about the Holocaust all the time, but coming from someone like me, it had a special resonance.”

Akers has been working on the music and script for nearly a year. She said she wanted to make sure Smith could end his career with BHS theater on a high note.

“We’re really fortunate to be able to stage original productions here,” Akers said. “We wanted to send Nathan off with a story that meant a lot to him, and we’ve all really loved the process.”

The show has proven to be a challenge, as the cast is learning their lines, choreography and music all at the same time and with only two weeks before opening night. But Akers said the cast has jumped at the opportunity.

“The best part about doing an original production is you can adapt the story to fit some of the characters and personalities you see in the cast,” she said. “It’s been a little stressful, but this cast has thrown themselves into it completely and they’re doing a wonderful job.”

The cast comprises nearly 20 students, most of whom play multiple roles and even double as crewmembers. Madison Senger plays several roles in the show and is also designing the costumes.

This show posed a particular challenge for the crew, since many African characters are being portrayed by a mostly white cast, but Senger developed a workaround in her costumes. Each character wears a vest with patterns on each lapel, one side denoting their character and the other denoting their race.

The students wrote and directed the show as an entry into Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre awards, which lets high school drama students around the state compete with original productions.

“Rising Ashes” will be shown on Thursday and Friday, May 5 and 6 at 7 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $5 at the door. For more information, contact Shari Akers at sakers@blainesd.org.

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