PITTSFIELD -- A musical renowned for promoting inclusion of all sorts worked its charms locally as a performance of "Hairspray JR." evolved into a community discussion on acceptance at the Berkshire Museum on Thursday.
Things have progressed a long way since the 1960s -- locally and nationally -- but there’s a ways to go. That was the consensus.
Often the speakers, including various adult professionals who confront issues of racism and discrimination locally and the youths who acted in the play, contrasted between the idealized vision of John Waters’ musical and the "real world."
One of the young actors, Raymond White, 18, of Pittsfield, painted a picture.
"Once you do a show and leave the theater, it’s a completely different world out there," White said. "People stare at you like you’re from another planet because of this or that reason. It does have a lot to do with racism, but also that we’re different. Different tends to be threatening to people. So, if we could just accept each other’s differences it would be a lot easier for everyone to live and grow in the same community and society."
During shows and at rehearsal, on the other hand, the world the youths build together does mirror that of the play, according to Courtney Stewart, 16, of Springfield.
"There’s never a time when we’re thinking, ‘Wow, we’re different from each other,’ " Stewart said.
Earlier in life, though, Stewart said he encountered people, older people, "who made me wish I was a white, straight, Christian male -- because you’re at the top."
"It took communicating with my own generation, who seem to have progressed," he said. "I don’t know if it was something in the water, but we woke up and realized we deserve equality and to not see race."
The adults who took part also took inspiration from the younger generation.
"You’re not born a racist; you’re taught racism," Dennis Powell, chairman of the local NAACP chapter’s Education Policy Committee, said. "I think there’s less teaching being done, or there’s less young people accepting the lesson."
The challenges remain. Powell pointed to the higher rate of out-of-school suspensions among young African Americans in Pittsfield Public Schools and the increased difficulty people of color experience in finding employment.
"There continues to be a lot of racial concerns in our community," Shirley Edgerton, program director of Youth Alive and Rights of Passage, said. "It’s very challenging for a lot of young people in the Berkshires, because often folks judge by what they see and don’t take the time to get to know them as individuals."
Former Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto expressed regret for not ensuring while in office that more teachers and other mentors of color were employed by Pittsfield Public Schools.
"If this community is going to grow and prosper, it has got to do it in a more multicultural way," Ruberto said.
Barrington Stage Company put on Thursday’s performance, which featured a cast of 32 -- a few company thespians and many young aspiring stars from Western Massachusetts. The production will continue through Aug. 10.
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