Wendell Tabb was the kind of kid who loved to be in the spotlight, whether he was imitating family members at reunions or singing at church performances.
A teaching career lured him away from his planned career as an actor, but he’s still getting his share of attention. In 30 years as theater director at Hillside High School, Tabb has earned a slew of accolades. He was Durham’s Teacher of the Year, was given a key to the city of Durham and had a day named after him by county commissioners.
This summer, Tabb was honored as one of 20 educators nationwide at the 2017 Tony Awards. He was also an honored guest at Gov. Roy Cooper’s State of the State address.
Tabb puts on three or four productions a year at the school, and brings students from across the country and abroad to perform and train. A number of his former students have gone on to professional acting careers, though Tabb says all of his students learn from the experience.
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Helping them gain confidence and skills is a role he’s happy to play.
“To me, the real stage is standing in front of students each and every day trying to bring out the best in them,” he says.
Hillside Principal William Logan says Tabb has built up a community around the arts at the school and that graduates often return to see the plays and support the school’s other theater programs.
“When people see our students perform under his direction, they see the value in the arts,” Logan says. “He’s very passionate about his work and he’s dedicated to seeing students thrive and achieve.”
Teaching was his fallback
Tabb grew up in Louisburg. His mother was a teacher, but he didn’t immediately plan to follow in her footsteps. His first hope was to play basketball. He later switched to running track, and after playing a small role in a high school play, he decided he would make a career as an actor.
“I wanted to be on television or in the movies or on Broadway,” he says. “When you grow up and watch television, you only see the actors, so I didn’t think much about directing.”
When he decided to major in theater at N.C. Central University, his mother urged him to also take education classes so he’d have a career to fall back on. He added an extra year to his studies to earn his teacher certification and found a natural fit during his student teaching. He notes that his sisters are also educators.
“It was in us,” he says.
He went to graduate school to earn a degree in administration but still planned to strike out as an actor. When the job of drama teacher came open at Hillside, he figured he would stay for a few years before moving to California or New York. It was 1987, and he never left.
“I had my plans but God kept putting things in front of me,” he says.
Tabb wanted to bring a high standard of professionalism to the productions at Hillside, creating a point of pride in a school with strong community ties and a population dominated by low-income, minority students.
“Hillside theater has allowed our community to come together for something that encourages students,” he says. “There’s a strong element in having the community coming out to see the show. It’s a huge event.”
He says students flock to his program because of its previous successes. He started with about 25 active students and now has more than 100 who put on three or four shows a year.
“Their peers are telling them how much fun they’re having,” he says.
Just a few years after coming to Hillside, he founded the International Professional-Student Exchange Program, which has allowed students to travel and perform across the country and abroad to more than a dozen countries. The program is funded through community donations.
Another program he started, Celebrities in the Classroom, brings working artists to visit Hillside, including those in behind-the-scenes jobs such as choreography.
His favorite and most popular play is “The Wiz,” which he puts on every six or seven years so that no student does it twice.
“There are so many issues in ‘The Wiz’ that students can relate to,” he says. “She wants all of these things, and she’s meeting people who have all these things they think they need to have, even though they’ve had it all the time. I tell kids all the time, you already have what it takes.”
Tabb leans toward topics that resonate with students or teach powerful lessons, but he is careful to make sure the material isn’t too complex or controversial.
His plays have tackled domestic violence, drug addiction and bullying, and he often calls on students to recall their personal connections to the topics in addition to doing extensive research.
Tabb is also active in theater outside the school. He still acts and directs the community production of “Black Nativity” each year. He spent last week in Winston-Salem at the National Black Theatre Festival, attending two or three shows every day and learning about current trends with other professors and actors.
“This is how I stay on top of the game and advance my understanding of the profession,” he says.
He’s an advocate for funding the arts in schools. Without adequate public funding, he says, students in less affluent schools often miss chances to perform early on, which puts them at a disadvantage at high school auditions and beyond.
“Everyone should have that positive advantage of having dance or theater or band early on,” he says. “Someone who is fresh in that system is going to have to work extremely hard.”
Born: August 1962, Louisburg
Career: Chair of visual and performing arts, Hillside High School
Education: B.A. theater education and M.A. educational administration, N.C. Central University
Family: Wife Duchess, son Emmanuel
Fun fact: As a teenager, Tabb occasionally worked spinning records under the name DJ Soda Pop.