Chioma Anyawu learns how to put on fake eyelashes in the faculty lounge bathroom at Hickman High School.
The 18-year-old star actress studies the directions on the box.
“Natural. Right,” she says to herself. “Right.”
Chioma is outwardly calm amidst the circus that surrounds her as 20-some young actresses rush around the lounge — half-dressed, half their hair in curlers, half their faces made up, excited as racehorses.
Animated chatter bounces off the lemon-colored walls, making the group sound much larger than it is. Girls wander in and out, drawn to each other, providing hugs and hair help and hope.
Chioma leans forward, gazing into the mirror and wrinkling her face as she mounts the long, black lashes on top of her own.
“I’ve never had them on before, so I feel like a drag queen,” she says.
But she’s in good company, and many of the other actresses, witnessing her success, come to her for help.
“You apply the glue and I’ll do everything else,” she tells a friend.
They study the results.
“It looks like caterpillars are crawling on my eyes,” Chioma decides, laughing.
But neither girl has a moment to spare — show time is an hour away — and they reach for bags of makeup and carefully prepared outfits lying on a rack in neat rows. The performers in the lounge-turned-dressing-room trade places, forming lines of girls curling each other’s hair and digging through bags for bobby pins and hair spray.
The warm-up tapes come on, and the chatter turns to music as the girls practice scales and arpeggios.
“A-E-I-O-U,” they sing.
Within an hour, they will take their places on stage for the dress rehearsal of “Good News,” a musical put on by the musical productions class at Hickman. Chioma describes her character as the villain.
“I have this mad obsession for all types of music,” she says. “Anything that blows your hair back is amazing.”
Chioma sang in the choir in elementary school and has ferociously tackled all plays and musicals since her first year at Hickman. Now, she finds herself at the center of her theater family.
“They’re like my second family because I see them more than I see my mom,” she says. “Everybody really enjoys each other. We are pretty dysfunctional. That’s our function — being dysfunctional is our function.”
But through the tribulations of high school, theater and music have kept her going. She dreams of double majoring in psychology and musical theater in college.
“I’m in love with it. I’m in love with theater,” she says. “There’s so much to do and there’s so much to memorize. You really have to love it to do it. ... It’s not easy at all. We make it look easy.”
Soon, perhaps too soon, “circle” is called and the large cast gathers in the hall outside the auditorium. As much as the behind-the-scenes preparation is important, even more critical is the tradition-filled, energy-producing together-time before the performance.
Chioma takes her place in the center of the circle with a couple of the other leading stars. They skip around the circle as a new song fills the dark, deserted hallway.
“Little Sally Walker/Walking down the street/Didn’t know what to do/So she stopped in front of me.”
It’s a ditty they sing to pump each other up.
There’s the pre-show, the mid-show, the post-show, the energy circle, the directors’ pranks, the candle-lighting, the “senior rain” and the girls, gathered in the dressing room, circled up, singing “Lean on Me” — all traditions of the theater family at Hickman.
But tonight, as soon as this circle is done, there’s the culmination of 12 weeks of preparation, the sometimes five hours a day of practice, the sleepless nights, missed meals and frustrating rehearsal, the sore voices and inside jokes. All are about to come together in one last practice.
It is for this that Chioma came to school, even when she was so sick she could barely sing. For these two hours where time is suspended, where Chioma, in her 11th show at Hickman, with a clear, melodic voice becomes one with the music, the character, the moment.