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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff
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
Centerstage: M.J. Etua speaks with her students after a dress rehearsal.
Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff
'In theater, it doesn't matter if you have the money or not. M.J. has proved that.' – Stephen Cunetto, executive director of the Mississippi Theater Association.
Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff
Dry run: Students from Louisville High School rehearse 'He Calls Me By the Thunder,' a play written and directed by their teacher, M.J. Etua.

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.

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."

Soon, Etua began to write her own plays, with classroom feedback, which allowed students an emotional stake in the creative process. A handful of early productions proved successful and, two years ago, Etua began work on "Thunder," her most ambitious project to date.

"I had a kid who was very interested in starting a protest at Louisville High," Etua remembers. "I told him, 'If you're going to do it, you might as well do it well.' And I explained how students have made huge impacts on our culture in the past."

Etua gave her student a primer on the peaceful protest movement in the South, leading him back through the tear gas, the lynchings, and the sit-ins.

Eventually she arrived at the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Ala. – an act that claimed the lives of four young African-American girls and shook the civil rights movement to the core.

"Thunder" first came to life as a vignette about the protests that proceeded and followed the bombing, but eventually widened to encompass the hard-won achievements of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (The name of the play comes from a line of an old spiritual.) For the students of Louisville High, most of whom are black, it became a way to understand their own history.

"I'd been introduced to some of it at a very young age," says Matthew Green. "I knew how bad it was for a black person back then. But the performance made me feel like I was there."

Thames, who looked at graphic photo evidence of the bombing's aftermath, says she soon realized that this "could have been my mother. Could have been my family." On stage, she adds, she is cognizant of the terror that the bombings caused and she often drives her performance by visualizing the photos.

"Thunder" is a wrenching thing to watch – it's staged simply, with only four wooden crates as props, but acted with a surfeit of heart. Voices included Martin Luther King Jr., the press, and the girls themselves, who bicker about the prospect of joining the protest movement and marching on Birmingham. Eventually, the bomb explodes, and their bodies crumple, in small heaps, across the stage.

Stephen Cunetto, the executive director of the Mississippi Theater Association says that the play is a good fit for this year's festival, which includes work from a variety of high school drama programs.

"In theater, it doesn't matter if you have the money or not," he says. "M.J. has proved that."

Searching for inspiration

Last week, the day before the Louisville High troupe was scheduled to leave for Hattiesburg, Etua assembled her students in the school's bright, high-ceilinged auditorium for a final dress rehearsal. The performance, some students admitted, was a mess. The dialogue was sagging in spots; the blocking of the funeral scene had gone haywire, and a few key props were missing.

"Martin Luther King," Etua shouted to Jamarcus Chambers, the actor playing Dr. King, "never goes anywhere without his Bible. Where's your Bible, Martin Luther King?"

"You have a message to give these people," she said, after a long pause. "It's a difficult one, I know. But it's the glory of the story. You've got to trust in that."

Later that evening, Rash said the problems were mostly a product of nerves and high-flying emotion. It was a familiar feeling. In Starkville, the audience had cried during the performance and cheered with such force that Rash "wasn't in character anymore. I literally broke character – I was Chris again, thinking, 'Please, Lord, let us have a good show.' "

But Etua's greatest gift, he said, was making her students look past the din of those fears, to find their own source of inspiration. "Ms. Etua saw something in me that I hadn't seen in myself," says Thames. "It's a blessing."

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