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Durham Educator Celebrates 30 Years At Hillside High School

Hillside High School, The Wiz, Musical Theatre
Meredith Wilson
The Durham VOICE
Students at Durham's Hillside High School recently performed "The Wiz," under the direction of Wendell Tabb.

About half of the public school teachers in North Carolina have been in the classroom for less than 10 years. But then you have a high school teacher in Durham who is celebrating 30 years at the same school and has no intention of leaving anytime soon.

Wendell Tabb is the long-time theatre director at Hillside High School. And for much of this school year, he has been preparing students for their grand production of "The Wiz." It’s a popular all-African American adaptation of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” a favorite for students and audiences at this historically black high school.

“The Wiz is what I want, The Wiz is what I want, The Wiz is what I want, in my life! is what the students sing to warm up their voices.

Tabb gets much of the credit for bringing these joyful young people together during his three decades as theatre director. But his script wasn’t supposed to read this way. He was in graduate school, a student teacher at Hillside, when the drama teacher left after getting a role in the movie, “The Color Purple.” She asked Tabb to fill in.

“And I said, yes, I’ll take over but I don’t think I will probably be there but about a year, two years to the max," said Tabb.

You know how this story goes – two years turns into five years and five years into 10. Tabb would officially make Hillside his home. And his expectations were high.

“So when I came to Hillside, I was like, 'Okay we’re going to do theatre but we’re going to do some professional theatre because that’s where I’m supposed to be'," said Tabb. "I was supposed to be in New York, or I’m supposed to be in LA, and so if I’m going to stay here and do this, we got to do it right, and we’re going to do it professionally. And they were hungry for it.”

Hillside High School, Durham Public Schools, The Wiz
Credit Leoneda Inge
Wendell Tabb, center, is greeted by former student Kayla Tate, left, and her mother Zarrida Davis.

Camryn Sherer, a 17-year-old senior at the school, first worked with Tabb in Hillside’s community production of "Black Nativity."

“My first role was an angel," she said. "I was seven-years-old, and I was so happy I got to wear the sparkly angel wings. I thought I was hot stuff.”

Sherer is still the center of attention. She’s the stage manager and she starred as Glenda, the Good Witch of the South in “The Wiz.”

Tabb’s students have performed on bigger stages than the one at Hillside. He has accompanied them to England, Senegal, Brazil and more. Sherer was part of the group of theatre students who traveled to Beijing, China with Tabb. 

“Knowing that I am graduating this year and knowing that I’ve come through this journey so far with him literally right by my side in my artistry and encouraging me to do well in school and all that is very bitter sweet," said Sherer. "But I know that as long as we take the legacy on to wherever we are, he can continue his legacy here. Because he knows it’s doing well and transcending far beyond the walls of Hillside High School. So yeah, I’m just very thankful for him.”

Tabb can barely move an inch in the Hillside lobby after the final “Wiz” performance. Some people want autographs, others want a hug and a selfie. Kayla Tate is one of Tabb’s former students and is currently a junior at North Carolina A&T State University. She and her mom, Zarrida Davis lament the future.

“I’m wondering when he is going to give someone else the theatre, but I don’t think it’s going to happen no time soon," said Davis, with Tate nodding in agreement. "He still have another 10 years left in him. There's a lot more kids that need him."

And Tabb says he needs them, and hopes to begin producing their work on stage real soon.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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