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Behind the scenes of a Sampson County theater production

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  • Angela Martin's annual all-county productions create an important community in the theater world of Sampson County.
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On stage at Hobbton High School, Timon and Pumbaa are meeting a young Simba and gearing up to teach him about their life’s motto, or as they would put it, their “problem free philosophy.”

During “The Lion King JR” dress rehearsal, actors are in full costume and makeup, lifting up a downtrodden cub before a sunset of burnt orange, yellow and red on the Serengeti savanna. Who is behind this backdrop, both figuratively and literally as these Sampson County students begin the big number? Four moms at work with glue guns, Spanish moss, staplers and palm leaves.

Shannon Marshall, Colleen Pope, Brandy Spearman and Kelly Rackley are all mothers to students participating in this year’s all-county production of “The Lion King JR.” A week before opening night, Marshall got word from director Angela Martin that they needed a backdrop.

Marshall, an educator at Union Elementary, jumped on board. She developed the painting concept and recruited others to help. In 72 hours these women created both a jungle and savanna set for their children’s production.

The set is an essential element to theater, and for Martin, no detail goes overlooked. This is the 87th play she has directed, and in the fall she will celebrate her 20th year as a theater instructor in Sampson County Schools. Many of the faces we saw on stage have been coming back to her year after year, play after play.

For “The Lion King JR,” Martin has student actors from seven regional schools as well as home school students. April 20 and 21, the cast will perform four times for the public (get tickets here), and starting Monday, April 22, the all-county production will host about 1,500 elementary students from their district and surrounding counties.

Martin is always excited about exposing students to the arts. “Most of the elementary students have never been to a production,” she said. This year’s play may be a familiar story, with songs they can sing along to.

Student actors singing the iconic “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King.” Caroline Parker/EducationNC

How does an all-county production like this happen? With leadership like Martin and financial support from the community. She applied for and was awarded a grant from The Simple Gifts Fund for the show. Funding helps procure the rights to the play, a week of costume rentals and more.

Leah Worely is in 9th grade and was in the audience for last year’s all-county production of GREASE. Inspiration took hold, and she knew next time the opportunity came around she wanted to audition. “Last year I had seen the all-county show as a middle school student, so this year I was like, ‘I got to do it, I got to do it!,’” she said.

Worely makes her all-county debut in the cackle of hyenas, taking a jab or two on stage and conspiring with the story’s villain, Scar.

The play’s Mufasa is senior Jerrod Wise, who had his first theater experience last year in GREASE, taking on the role of snappy radio announcer Vince Fontaine. He plans to attend UNC Pembroke to major in music education in the fall. “I will still be coming around to work with Ms. Angela,” he said happily.

And in a room backstage stands Skylar Floyd, another actor of Martin’s who has stuck with her throughout the years. Floyd performed in many of Martin’s productions, and is currently starring in the Harnett Regional Theater rendition of “The Music Man.”

Floyd is here to help with makeup and costuming, and after rehearsal will head to her own practice with Martin, who is also directing the regional theater play.

The sentiment surrounding an all-county production is of joy and unification. We heard it last year, too — students of different ages, schools and grades get to know people they wouldn’t otherwise. This type of casting creates a new community, and one where every voice is heard.

Once Martin called the end of rehearsal, an actor playing a hyena stepped to the front and requested that they have another try at a musical number he wanted to get a little tighter. Mufasa took the opportunity to talk about sharpening the chorus with the cast.

Everyone took their places on stage, and performed together again — this time a little louder, a little bolder. Martin has created a special environment where students listen and learn from one another. She may be directing the cast, but students take opportunities to lead.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.