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Wakefield’s Drama Boasts Backstage Diversity

Diverse population means experienced actors with range of backgrounds.

Wakefield’s drama students have spent the last six weeks turning the high school’s auditorium into ancient Rome.

Students perform "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," this weekend, recreating Imperial Rome, as it’s portrayed in the Stephen Sondheim musical.

But Chris Gillespie, the play’s director and Wakefield’s drama teacher, said his cast members come from enough backgrounds to put Rome to shame.

Wakefield’s student population is one of the most diverse in the Washington region, drawing from Latino, Ethiopian, African-American and other minority populations in South Arlington.

That’s reflected in the play’s cast. But three of Gillespie’s drama regulars bring diverse personal backgrounds to the stage, coming to Wakefield from India, Ethiopia and Spain over the last three years.

<b>AMANDA ECKERSON,</b> a senior at Wakefield, plays Hysterium, the comic sidekick to the main character. She came to Wakefield just last year, after growing up in Haiti and Ethiopia as her mother worked in the Foreign Service.

She first got exposed to drama through her uncle, a performer on Broadway.

"We got good seats at ‘Brigadoon,’ ‘Me & My Girl,’ ‘Showboat,’" she said. "I got exposed at an early age."

She started performing while in the International Community School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. "I started in seventh grade, and started helping the younger kids," she said.

The school attracted other children of diplomats, as well as the children of well-to-do Ethiopians. The make-up of the school provided some preparation for Wakefield, she said.

At Wakefield, Eckerson threw herself into the drama department, acting in the school musicals and smaller plays. Earlier this year, she was a cast member in "The Lady in Question," Wakefield’s entry in the Virginia High School League’s one-act competition.

The atmosphere at the competition was almost addictive, she said – leading Eckerson to look for drama programs in colleges.

<b>GROWING UP IN SPAIN,</b> Sira Piza Airas got involved in her high school theater and a local amateur drama group. Though the group may be amateur, Airas said, it’s demanding. "People are paying, so their expectations are high," she said.

When the exchange student came to Wakefield this year, she thought that drama would be a good way for her to get to know people. "Theater people are like that. Everybody’s really involved," she said.

She also went to Richmond with "The Lady in Question," and is playing a courtesan in "A Funny Thing."

But drama will not be a way for life for her when she returns to Spain this year. "I’m going to focus on the arts, on painting," she said. "But I don’t know which I like better. Neither is a secure job."

<b>NABANJAN MAITRA,</b> cast as "A Funny Thing’s" protagonist Pseudolus, also expects to leave drama behind when he goes to college. Maitra grew up in Calcutta, India, before moving to the U.S. and entering Wakefield in his sophomore year.

Growing up overseas was a blessing and a curse, he said. It made it easier to adapt to change, but it did mean getting used to some new situations, like playing baseball instead of cricket.

"I don’t even know if it’s that much of an issue," he said. He and Airas bring the biggest cultural differences to Wakefield, but they also brought confidence about their abilities, he said. "She was just a very good actress," Maitra said.

<b>WITH AN AMERICAN</b> upbringing, Ryan Isaacs agreed – the international flavor on Wakefield’s stage was not a big issue. "Different people have different ideas," he said. "The diversity in theater, and in school in general, is a lot different."

Isaacs, playing Pseudolus’ owner Hero in "A Funny Thing," said that Wakefield was certainly more diverse than most of Arlington. "Drama’s not quite as diverse," he said. "You see the same people doing it all the time."