Corey Quinn admits he likes to take risks.
But it’s not in the lab at Mountain Pointe High School, where he teaches biology, but on stage, where he has been the student theater company sponsor the entire 19 years he’s been there.
This weekend, the student thespians will be presenting perhaps his riskiest production – the late playwright August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 drama “Fences.”
What makes it such a daring work for a high school production, Quinn admits, is Wilson’s raw look at the mounting rage of inner-city blacks in the mid-1950s as a bitter ex-Negro League baseball player blocks his son’s budding athletic career.
Set entirely in the backyard of a Pittsburgh home, the play was turned into a movie two years ago that garnered Denzel Washington an Oscar nomination for his performance as Troy Maxson, who could not break into the major leagues because of his color and now barely scrapes by as a trash collector.
Quinn went to great lengths to mount the production, running it past his chain of command, beginning with Assistant Principal/Activities Joe Dominguez all the way to the Tempe Union High School District headquarters.
He also conferred with Mountain Pointe’s Black Student Union and even Wilson’s family, since he needed their OK to change some of the play’s coarser language – particularly omitting the n-word from the script.
It wasn’t because he is a white director of the first all-black cast in Mountain Pointe Theatre Company history.
“I wanted to get everybody’s input on it,” Quinn said. “All the people have been very supportive. You want to makes sure you do it right. The last thing you want to do is mess it up.”
Though he said “we always reach out” to school officials to get their approval of the plays he selects, Quinn said buy-in was especially important with “Fences.”
“These are young kids and you’re picking a play that’s a little more adult,” he explained.
“Fences” will be presented at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, and 2 and 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, at the school, 4201 E. Knox Road, Ahwatukee. Admission is $10 for adults and $7 for students.
A special showing will be presented tomorrow, Feb. 8, for Mountain Pointe students who want to stay after school. Representatives of the Black Student Union will briefly discuss African- American culture and history after all four productions.
Quinn explains on the Mountain Pointe Theatre Company’s website that he picks plays with stories that “I feel I can connect with on some level.
“‘Fences’ is an amazing story focusing on one particular family’s relationships,” he wrote, adding that while the characters’ story “isn’t exactly mine,” there are elements “that hit close to home” and it contains “a message that seeks to be found under all the layers that sit on the page of our scripts.”
Ahwatukee resident Neal Lester, the Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University who has extensively studied and teaches African-American literature, said that while “Fences” “is about the perpetuation of segregation,” “I hope people don’t label this as a black play.”
“The story is for everybody,” he said. “It’s about forgiveness, family, masculinity and it’s also about race. There’s not much humans do that’s not about race.”
He said that “because the director is not of color,” Mountain Pointe’s production “adds a whole lot of interest in it.”
“A black play in the hands of a white teacher can create suspicions,” Lester said, adding that he also had talked with Quinn about the show.
“I think it’s good and a little bit risky,” he added “It’s about who we are and where we are politically and socially.”
In the canon of African-American literature, Lester said, “I think August Wilson’s contribution was a way of looking at what’s happening in the world. He does call racism out in ways that are pretty aggressive.”
Quinn said in an interview that his seven-member cast and the crew seem especially excited about the production.
“They’re super excited,” said Quinn, who on his website praised the students for their “amazing job of dissecting this script and bringing this show to life.”
The cast includes six Mountain Pointe students and one child, Jazmine Tarpley, the daughter of a friend of Quinn who makes an appearance near the end of the play.
The student cast members have been rehearsing since finals in December, a slightly longer-than-normal time because the cast is small “and there are a lot more lines to memorize,” Quinn said.
Besides, he added, “the play itself is different” in that “it’s something the kids evolve into” and he wanted the cast to have enough time to get comfortable in their roles.
There is only one woman in the cast – played in Mountain Pointe’s production by Janae Jessie. Nemo Wright plays Troy. The rest of the student cast includes Grant Cunningham, Kentrell Henderson, Kendrick Horton and Noah Butler.
The all-student crew built a relatively elaborate set for a play where the action is contained to one site. Under the direction of set chief Jillian McDaniels, students built a two-story frame house, including a porch, that Quinn designed.
The stage managers for “Fences” are Cory Drowskowski and Rueben Ayala while technical direction is being handled by Ali Stookey and Ethan Briant.
The rest of the crew includes: Lexi Powers, Taylor Simmons, Mikaela Romo, Julianne Porter, Andre Presume, Adie Harvey, Xavion Grantham, Jared Adams, Lexi Artusa-Sirota, Myles Thomas, Cedric Beck, Dennis Clayton, Jared Adams, Savanna Camp, Isaac Davis, Lexie Rodriguez, Alie Konczak, Ellis Caraway, Charnay Locke, Jaimen Reed;
Also, Kjiana Henderson, Ahriyana Johnson, Cassie Presume, Savannah Groll, Haila Reed, Kendall Robinson, Spencer Reed, Alayjia Marcelin, Ali Adelis, Nia Wilson, Maya Mendoza, Arin Vaughn, Bekkah Weier, Claudia Reynolds, Cove Chon, Savannah Mendez, Bella Alati, Tyler Ayala, Jamon Pritchett, A’Shayla Anderson, Aysha Smith, Madison Smith, Zane Branbury, Phoenix Evans, Jacob Lemos, Sam Cool, Alex Sudis and Jessica Calabrese.