The whole song and dance

The little auditorium at the University of Chicago Charter School’s Woodlawn School is packed, full of rowdy secondary school students still wide-eyed at this time of night. The walls are a bright blue, with a faux-rococo aesthetic marking the architecture. Behind me sits a chatty group of freshman girls. They are at this show–a school performing arts exhibition–for physics extra credit.

“You with the University?” one of them asks me. I say yes. “Mhm, I’m probably gonna go there too,” she says, before her attention is snatched by a group of some freshmen boys who just arrived.

The lights go down and some sultry R&B music plays. After a slow introductory dance number, the emcee, a Woodlawn student with movie star looks and stage presence, comes on stage to welcome everybody to “South Side Narratives,” a performing arts exhibition. He recites the school’s code, which one of the freshman girls explains is done every week at school assembly.

The emcee mentions something called the “Common Core,” which has shades of the UofC’s own core curriculum. But the message here is different: Woodlawn is about hope for practical success rather than forceful intellectualism. The emphasis is on sending kids through to college, in a public school system where the graduation rate hovers around 60 percent and where about half of those graduates enroll in higher education establishments.

The show’s ‘narratives’ come in the form of dance numbers, song covers, monologues, and original musical theater numbers. These original numbers, put on with the help of a visiting Broadway veteran, search for hope in bleak scenarios–a son confronting and reuniting with his absentee father, a group of orphans sharing their dreams of normal family life in a group home.

But the acts that get the biggest applause are the classic numbers you might find at any high school talent show–covers of pop and Broadway songs and showstopping balletic dance routines. The singers sometimes sing out of tune, but they belt, hitting high notes and crescendos and getting huge applause for sheer force. Actors deliver cheesy lines with classic secondary school stiltedness and melodrama, but it’s all over-baked with sincerity. The players are confident; they love the spotlight–it’s their night, and they bring it.