When Garden City High School's theater program arrived at Musical Theatre Wichita’s 2018 Jester Awards, they had been nominated for 18 awards for their fall production of "In The Heights." It was the most nominations the school had ever gotten for one production.
As the nominations turned to wins, GCHS drama and theater director Barbara Hilt said the show’s 50-member cast and crew were ecstatic. Friends leaped and held onto each other. Tears streaked as classmates won.
“I think our kids screamed the loudest for everything,” Hilt said.
Judges from the Jester Awards watch plays and musicals across the state, this year viewing productions from 41 Kansas high schools.
By the end of the night, GCHS had won 10 awards, the most they have ever won in one year, including best overall production, direction, leading actor and supporting actress. The program also took home the most technical awards it had ever won in a year, including lighting, costume, sound and scenic design, stage crew and lobby display.
To Hilt, who directed the production, the key to this year’s success was clear.
“It’s their story,” she said of her students. “So the investment that they had in this production was maybe higher than any other show just because they connected so much to it.”
"In The Heights," is a modern musical that follows the lives and relationships of people living in a mostly Latino neighborhood in Washington Heights, New York City. Written by Hamilton’s Lin Manuel Miranda, the show is a love letter to immigrants, to sacrifice, heritage and blending cultures.
GCHS is no stranger to the diversity that the show celebrates. Last year, the student body represented 25 countries and 28 languages.
In the show, second generation immigrants long for a home they barely remember or worry they’ll let down parents that gave up so much for them. Hilt said her students, some of them first or second generation immigrants themselves, found ownership in the stories it had to tell.
Two cast members, sophomore Johb Silva and senior Elena Lopez, each won for lead actor and supporting actress, respectively. Silva, who played the musical’s lead, Usnavi, a young man who dreams of returning to his parent’s home country, the Dominican Republic, said the character reminded him of his family.
Silva said his grandfather immigrated to the United States from Mexico to find a better life.
“A lot of it was for him,” he said. “Whenever he came to watch, he really liked it. It made me happy because I don’t really care about criticism, but during the show he was the one person. I wanted to make him proud.”
Hilt said she was proud that the show had received so many technical accolades, as well. Robin Hilt, who was nominated for costume design, said her team made much of the show’s modern wardrobe from scratch.
Barbara Hilt said she always tries to introduce students to technical theater. It expands their skills, she said, but it also makes them more gracious and involved team members.
Hilt said both at and outside of the Jester Awards, she’s often praised for the work the GCHS theater program produces. At this year’s awards, she said, fans approached the cast and crew, telling them they loved the production.
For students that rarely get to see how they compare to their peers across the state, Hilt said the power of these statements and the value of an event like the Jester Awards is immeasurable. The school’s program may not win as many awards every year, but the cast and crew always get to embrace their talent.
"The reason I enjoy it is because it allows our kids to get out of Garden City and see sort of where they do stack up because they don’t always see themselves as winners…” Hilt said. “That was what was really moving about (the awards), is that they saw themselves differently.”
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.