COLUMBIA — Below the dimmed lights of the Smithton Middle School cafetorium, Mahogany Thomas sits at a table in front of the stage, taking notes on a yellow legal pad while her cast of sixth- and seventh-graders fumbles and ad-libs through its lines.
Her eyes remain focused on the stage and on her paper despite the kids throwing their bags at each other behind her. She looks up to tell the actors to stop fidgeting with their clothes or to call out a line. Her authority and her rapport are clear, surprisingly, considering Thomas is only slightly older than the students she directs; she's a 13-year-old eighth grader at West Junior High School.
WHAT: Night of Mystery drama production
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Smithton Middle School, 3600 W. Worley St.
"It's been a challenge to work with people who are a similar age as you," she said, clad in navy West Junior High sweatpants, a white t-shirt and white hoop earrings. White-framed sunglasses sit on top of her head. "You don't want to be mean, but you also want to get your point across."
The cast is rehearsing for "Check Under The Bed," a children's comedic mystery, which will run this Friday and Saturday at Smithton. It is one of two single-act plays featured on the bill for Smithton's "Night of Mystery." The other play is a dramatization of the Sherlock Holmes story "The Case of the Mazarin Stone."
Later, in a classroom, Thomas reads the cast notes from her folded yellow sheets — "All my ladies: please cross your legs onstage. Stop playing with your hair" — and offers words of encouragement — "Good job for doing your best without a crew." The cast members sit quietly, diligently taking notes in their laps as she talks to them. Soon, the room will explode with laughter as Thomas leads them in several improv games.
Thomas first became involved in drama as a sixth-grader at Smithton. "I like expressing myself and meeting new people," she said. "And I like challenging myself. Each role I get is new or something different from the previous role, so there's always a different challenge."
While Thomas was a student at Smithton, Amy Drtina, who teaches drama there, noticed her love for theater.
"I saw that she was very focused and motivated, so I asked her to direct the show," Drtina said. Drtina usually asks former students to come back to help out on shows, but this is the first time she has asked an eighth-grade student to direct.
Drtina's students are learning from Thomas's direction.
"I've learned more about improvising and ad-libbing from her," said Briana Grant, a sixth-grader who plays the mystery-loving lead character in "Check Under The Bed." "My friend forgot a line, and we kind of gave her hints to help her remember, without actually giving her the line."
Sixth-grader Evann Twitchell, who plays the diva-like Carlotta, said she likes working with Thomas.
"She's just about the same age as I am, so it's easy for her to show me what to do," she said.
Thomas plans to pursue theater at the high school and college levels.
"I don't want to stop acting," she said, "but directing is something I've realized I have a knack for and I'd like to keep doing it."