Hillside High Drama Department: a beacon of light in dark times

Wendell Tabb of Hillside’s Theatre Department is a big reason for the program’s stellar reputation and success. (Staff photo by Justin Williams)

Wendell Tabb of Hillside’s Theatre Department is a big reason for the program’s stellar reputation and success. (Staff photo by Justin Williams)


Mr. Wendell Tabb stands at the door of his theater room, a group of children gathered around, “Due to the situation we are currently having, the school has cancelled rehearsal today, we will resume rehearsal tomorrow as planned,” he said.

The students all scurry off, calling for rides they weren’t aware they would need.

Only ten or so minutes earlier Hillside High School was on lockdown after a security threat was called in by the police, the second one this month.

Yet instead of the students being excited to not have practice, the students were upset.

“It’s over now, I don’t get why we can’t stay and practice,” said one.

And while most would be concerned, this moment would remind you of why the Hillside Drama Department was so well known, because even in dire situation, the program prevailed.

Since their trip to Beijing, China, to perform at Jiayu Public School, the school’s positive reputation has been on the rise.

“With the notoriety of our program and with us going somewhere like Beijing gave us more attention to what wonderful things the students are doing here,” said Hillside Theatre Director Wendell Tabb.

And while the trip is helpful, the department’s history and reputation precedes itself.

Hillside High School’s Drama Department has existed for more than 45 years, beginning with Mr. John Gattis, taking a decline in the ’60s and ’70s. It wouldn’t be until the early to mid ’80s that Theatre Director Mr. Wendell Tabb took the reins of the program and helped it flourish into the entity it is now.

With the ability to take on challenging Broadway musicals, a traveling troupe in the form of OneVoice and the creation of the International Theatre Program at Hillside, the department has gained local acclaim, and it doesn’t seem set to slow down with the year they will be having.

“It’s been a great beginning to this year, and I expect it only get better,” said Tabb.

With a season ranging from African-American classics to Broadway hits, this season has a little something for everyone. One of the most interesting pieces being the original play, “Gifted.”

Designed to give the history of African-American talent, the show will premiere in February.

Dance instructor Nicole Oxendine will be taking on what it means to be a young black girl in society, and OneVoice traveling and performing shows to empower the black youth, “Gifted” may also bring hope to the surrounding community.

It’s no secret to many that Durham has a reputation of having a higher crime rate than surrounding communities, something that was highlighted in the documentary “Welcome to Durham.”

Hillside also fell victim to the stigma. But, the theatre program is a signature program that has an excellent reputation.

“For as long as I’ve been in Durham, Hillside’s Theatre Department has always seemed to beat out the bad rep the area gets,” said Mychal Keels, a current N.C. Central University student and alum of the Hillside Theatre Department.

“I remember moving here from Waxhaw, I’d heard a lot of things about Durham, especially Hillside.” Keels recollects.

“I remember hearing about how bad the school was and not wanting to go originally,” he says with a laugh. “But I am so glad that I did. I’m a dancer and an actor now and had it not been for the Drama department, I’m not sure I would have had the security to pursue it,” he said.

“The arts in general is a way to keep students actively involved…it becomes a safe haven for them…and we hope that it would have an impact in reducing crime in any particular area.”

And it would be more than safe to assume it does.

“I have so many friends who say that their life has changed because of theatre. So many friends whose grades have improved. It’s kept me out of so much trouble and given me so many opportunities,” Keels said.
This year Hillside High School Drama Department will be performing “Bubbling Brown Sugar” in November, “Gifted” in February, and “Grease” in the spring.

4 thoughts on “Hillside High Drama Department: a beacon of light in dark times

  1. most all is true , mr tabb has brought a more professional touch to the productions , but in the 80 s a white guy mr. powell directed the drama dept , and kept it alive.

  2. .My granddaughter is a member of the dance troupe at Hillside under Ms Ox, and the play Bubbling Brown Sugar was performed this past weekend and I tell you that was one of the moments I’m glad to be a Durhamite. Awesome job Mr. Tabb and Ms. Ox!

  3. My daughter attended Hillside and loved it!! And so did I. I am repulsed at the negative stereotypes this school gets as well as Durham. I have been a Durham resident for the past 25 years and I have nothing but great experiences living here and being involved in the Hillside community. My message to anyone wanting to know about Durham: Don’t believe the lies.

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