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A drama teacher stages a revolution inside a school – and galvanizes a town

In Mississippi, M.J. Etua helps students look outside their own world as they participate in a competition against better-funded programs.

By Matthew ShaerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2008

The school was initially unable to fund the production of 'Thunder,' so students raised the money themselves. Costumes were at a minimum. Many performers brought clothing from home.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff

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Louisville, Miss.

The first time Autrianna Thames climbed on a stage, her heart almost burst clear through her chest. She sweated, shook, and swayed; she spat out her lines in a tangled knot.

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But sitting in an emptied classroom at Louisville High School, surrounded by three classmates, Ms. Thames remembers that performance as revelatory – a moment when she realized she "belonged in front of an audience."

"It's sort of an empty place in you that gets filled in," says Chris Rash. "The day of our first class, I went home to my mom, and said, 'I know what I want to do with the rest of my life.'

"She said, 'Chris, why do you always have to pick the expensive hobbies? What's wrong with football?' "

In this small, working-class town, 100 miles northeast of Jackson, there's never been much room for theater. Students generally drift toward a nearby technical college after graduation – if they graduate at all – and then back to Louisville to find work in one of the local factories. Poverty levels are high; the educational focus is on practical trades, from accounting to computer sciences.

That's started to change. The catalyst, say students and administrators, is a young drama teacher and actress named M.J. Etua, who arrived at Louisville High in 2001, with the intent of jump-starting the school's drama program.

In November, Ms. Etua's original, one-act play, "He Calls Me By the Thunder," was nominated for a regional competition in nearby Starkville. Against all odds, the Louisville troupe won that competition and, last week, shuttled to the statewide festival in Hattiesburg to square off against a score of more experienced, better-funded programs.

On Sunday. Etua won two of the Mississippi Theater Association's Best Director awards, one for "Thunder," and one for a community theater project called "Art." Thames, for her part, landed an All-Star Cast Award.

Back at Louisville High, where football is the common religion – the Wildcats recently captured the state championship – the news has brought front-page coverage from the local newspapers and sent students like Mr. Rash somersaulting into the limelight.

"It's something they've taken total ownership of," says Principal Ken McMullen, an affable former football coach. "For a lot of them, that's the reason they're here in school.

"You can't fool kids," he smiles. "If kids know you care about them, you can get them to do anything."

Building from scratch

Etua, who studied theater at the University of Mississippi, remembers her first years at Louisville High as exceptionally difficult – a time when she fought to get students interested in the finer points of stagecraft. Some, she says, had dreams of Hollywood, but, like Thames, were hesitant to perform in front of their peers.

"One of the problems was students didn't see much of the world outside Louisville, and they had a tough time envisioning themselves out there," she says. With theater she found she could expose the students to a "world that they wouldn't be exposed to otherwise. They might be distant cultures, or historical periods, but we can find ideas – aspects of life – that we relate to."

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