“You can’t win / You can’t break even / And you can’t get out of the game,” Andrew Mays belts out. In the multipurpose room of a North Las Vegas church, he is rehearsing “You Can’t Win” from Broadway production-turned-cult-movie-classic The Wiz. Soon the music is cut, and a director asks the backup vocalists and dancers of their emotional inspirations behind their performances.
“Some of you are still smiling, and your movements aren’t big enough,” he complains. The Black Lives Matter movement is mentioned as potential inspiration. A parallel theme, of black visibility in mainstream entertainment, is addressed by the original 1970s production. The cast gives it another go.
The Broadway in the HOOD (Helping Others Open Doors) production of The Wiz hits the Reynolds Hall stage September 3, kicking off the organization’s second season as The Smith Center’s only resident theater troupe.
The local nonprofit organization offers residents up to age 20 from “the worst of neighborhoods” opportunities to become involved in the performing arts. It emphasizes social awareness, tackling musical-theater literature with themes including police brutality, homosexuality and teenage pregnancy.
HOOD founder Torrey A. Russell expects to “ruffle some feathers” with his version of The Wiz. Updating the main characters’ storylines to reflect the struggles of the 2010s, Dorothy finds the Scarecrow at a protest rally in HOOD’s production. It also features a Lion trying to make sense of his sexuality and a Tin Man musician whose heart has been “ripped to shreds” by the entertainment industry.
“We’re able to tackle these social issues because these kids relate to ‘Hands up. Don’t shoot.’ [They] relate to what they’re seeing in the media,” Russell says. “They relate to the crows plucking at them, about whatever it [may be].”
HOOD began as a modest operation in the West Las Vegas Library Theater in 2010, with 15 youths, nine adult volunteers and a goal to get kids off the streets and on stage. “Growing up myself in the hood, an area where there was nothing but gangs and violence and single parents and a lot of drugs, I was blessed in that there were programs for youth in the area,” Russell says. “I wanted to have a place where young people could have a leg up.”
Rehearsals for productions double as free after-school programs or, in the case of The Wiz, a day camp during summer break without the $200-per-week price tag. HOOD staff and volunteers lead the programs, which also often feature special guest speakers such as CSN’s Joan Mullaney, who taught the cast of The Wiz a little bit about Shakespeare a couple of weeks back.
The organization holds auditions at churches and community centers in the Historic Westside and North Las Vegas. Tickets to its productions at The Smith Center are kept at modest price points, thanks to donations from and promotional partnerships with local companies such as Flying by Foy and SPI Entertainment. Parents can attend and watch their children perform—more proof that the nonprofit is truly on a mission to make the fine arts accessible to the community it seeks to serve.
HOOD has also recruited cast members at nonprofit shelters for victims of domestic abuse and homeless youth, such as Shade Tree and Safe Place. One participant recruited from Shade Tree has her first lead role this season, after participating in HOOD productions for six straight years. “When we met her, she had just come from getting away from people who were looking for her … She said, straight out, ‘Why are you guys here? You’re not supposed to be here,’” Russell says. “She ended up going to UNLV and completely changed her life. Now, she tours and sings and does phenomenal modeling gigs.”
That success story—and many others—could be a testament to the organization’s goal-oriented acronym: Helping Others Open Doors. Russell says former HOOD participant Jordan Toure recently started his run as Young Simba in The Lion King on Broadway in New York City, following the footsteps of another alumnus, Teshi Thomas, who played Young Nala in the same show. Two Broadway-bound kids in six years? Even the staff at Las Vegas Academy would be impressed with those numbers.
But according to Russell, sometimes success isn’t measured by a bio and headshot in Playbill. “Our biggest success stories are the kids who end up graduating, whose parents were nonexistent, who lived in drug-infested [environments] … [who] were fighting against what was going on in their home life,” Russell says. “At the end of the day, it’s those people.”
Broadway in the HOOD presents The Wiz
Sept. 3, 2 and 7 p.m., $19-$69, Reynolds Hall, TheSmithCenter.com.