Some members of the Sanderson High School Theatre Ensemble weren’t so sure about their director’s choice for this year’s statewide competition.
“The Yellow Boat” by David Saar is a complex story about Saar’s young son, Benjamin, who contracted HIV after a blood transfusion. It’s a sobering yet uplifting view of a child’s experience with sickness and mortality.
Theater students at the Raleigh school worried whether the audience would climb aboard for such a somber journey.
“It was just so sad,” said senior Camerynn Smith, who plays Benjamin’s counselor, Joy. “I just couldn’t see how it was going to work. Honestly, I didn’t like the choice.”
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But director Peter Comperatore, who has been teaching theater arts for six years, wanted to take a risk, and it paid off. The group’s performance won a Judge’s Choice for Distinguished Play award at the North Carolina Theater Conference – a first for a Wake County high school theater group.
The award earned the students a trip to the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Greensboro, where they will perform “The Yellow Boat” for the last time March 3.
For the cast, particularly the seniors, the award was an acknowledgment of hard work. While the ensemble has had its share of successes and setbacks, this year was different.
This year, theater became about more than just a grade.
“As everything started to come together, I could really see Mr. C’s vision,” Smith said, referring to Comperatore. “At the end of each performance, the cast was in tears. We were just emotionally invested in the story.”
After learning they won the highest award at the statewide conference, students were overjoyed.
“I don’t think any of us thought we would actually win,” Comperatore said. “The cast was just so excited. I remember a lot of screaming. We’re never in this to win things. This is about learning. So what happened was unbelievable.”
The glory of a big win did not come without problems, though. Casting changes and set issues popped up. But the students remained dedicated to the story of Benjamin, played by senior Alex Gillette.
“It’s been a pretty crazy year,” Gillette said. “We’ve dealt with a lot to put this play together. We rehearsed daily.”
For Katelin Fitts, the story’s message hit close to home. Her father died in November, a few months after the cast started working on the play.
“It’s been a coping mechanism for me,” Fitts said. “When we started, I was very cynical about the choice to do this play. But when we really got into the story, it was transformative for me. It definitely gave me a more hopeful view about death.”
To research his role, Gillette learned as much as he could about the AIDS epidemic. He studied symptoms and conditions of the disease.
Smith said she contacted a child life specialist so she could better understand her character.
“I put a lot of work into figuring out what was going on in the minds of the characters,” she said. “It gave me a strong passion for the story we are telling.”
Students also became involved with the Alliance of AIDS Services – Carolina, giving food and drinks to patients at Christmas and raising more than $200 for holiday turkeys.
“We wanted to try to give them a somewhat normal Christmas,” Gillette said.
The interaction with the alliance, which focuses on support, education and HIV prevention, gave students another layer of understanding.
“It’s made it more real,” Fitts said. “We could see for ourselves that people are still struggling with this disease.”
At the end of the play, Benjamin steps aboard a yellow boat and gives his final farewell before leaping into his fate with acceptance. The Sanderson cast will soon complete their own voyage with the story.
During the statewide competition, students knew any performance could be the last. The last trip to the stage will be bittersweet for the cast – capping a year of emotions and rewards.
“It’s going to be really impactful for all of us,” Smith said. “This is the final step for us. I think we’ll be able to step back and fully appreciate where this story took us.”
How to help
The Sanderson High School Theatre Ensemble is raising money online to attend the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Greensboro. After the money-raising goal is reached, students will give any future donations to the Alliance of AIDS Services – Carolina. To donate, go to www.gofundme.com/STE2016.