The last dancer walking offstage, 15-year-old Ryan Edwards, punched the air in victory and, like a superstar, pointed out at the dress rehearsal crowd.
In a rare moment, Ryan, who’s in Rocky River High’s Exceptional Children program, was in the limelight. The EC program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teaches students with developmental disabilities.
Because of their performance of “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” almost two dozen EC students have unified many student groups that have come together to make the show happen. And they’ve changed perceptions on acceptance at the east Charlotte high school.
Friday morning, 23 EC students, with the help of theater students, will perform the play – twice – because so many people want to see them.
“To see them get the spotlight and have it enjoyed by so many people who want to come is so exciting,” said Matt Webster, Rocky River’s theater teacher.
The partnership between EC teacher Ann Lake’s kids and Webster’s drama classes began in 2010. Lake had a dozen of her students reciting lines from “Hamlet,” and she wanted Webster’s help to put on an abridged version for the students’ parents.
Webster enlisted some of his theater students to help with the show. They paired up with the EC students to guide them onstage and help them with their lines.
“Before the lights even cooled at the end of the day, Ms. Lake said, ‘So what are we doing next year?’ ” Webster recalled.
Three years later, with “A Christmas Carol” and a collection of three foreign short tales under their belts, 23 EC students and many groups of students across Rocky River are tackling “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.”
Lake chose “Sadako” because an abridged version of the play was already in this year’s CMS EC curriculum. It’s a story about a young Japanese girl from Hiroshima in the 1950s who suffers from leukemia.
The apparel-making class made the students’ costumes, while the advanced photography class is documenting the play. JROTC students are managing parking outside the school Friday morning. The crafts class made the set decorations, including more than 400 colorful paper cranes. Students in the teacher-cadet class, special for those who want to become teachers, have made course materials for EC teachers from other schools who will bring their students to the play Friday.
They’ll perform for nine EC classes from different high schools. They expect about 400 to attend between both shows.
Eleven have speaking parts and 12 are dancers, Lake said. Each of the actors who speak have buddies from Webster’s theater classes who accompany them onstage and show them where they need to go. Often the theater students will recite lines for them, and the actors will repeat the lines for the audience.
One actor, Dante Rodriguez, 16, is not highly verbal and shares his lines with his theater partner. For his speaking parts, he pushes the button on a machine that plays a recording of his lines.
Both the theater kids and the performers said the best part of the play is, simply, that it’s fun.
Talaya Mackey, 17, has the lead role of Sadako. Her favorite part is in the final scene when she stands tall above the others on a wooden block and acts as a smiling statue.
She also said she loves Jania Navarro, her theater partner who guides her throughout the play.
Navarro, a junior, said she was a little apprehensive when she first found out about helping Talaya because she’s never worked with EC students before. She said they surprised her.
“They are very smart and funny,” she said. “It was fun, it was different, and I’d do it again.”
Sean Myhand, a senior, filled in for a theater student at Wednesday morning’s dress rehearsal and said he enjoyed being a part of the production.
“It really is changing the view people have on special- ed kids,” Myhand said.
The actors are also discovering their talents and the ability to be admired. “I’m a good actor,” said Jordan Walker, 17, with a grin. He’s playing the older brother role in “Sadako.”
Edward Blevins, 16, plays the younger brother and said getting to act is fun, but part of the thrill is having friends and family watch the show. “They like it, too,” he said.
EC classes from nine CMS high schools will attend Friday, and their teachers will have them participate in activities about the play when they return to the classroom. But before that happens, Rocky River is also hosting a basketball tournament for all of the EC students after the play. It’ll be during a regular gym class, Lake said, so students in class will be able to cheer on the participants from the bleachers.
Webster said the culture of excluding EC students is changing at Rocky River, in large part because of the play.
“There was that fear of the unknown and perception of ‘those kids.’ Now I see them saying hi to each other in the halls. I see the EC kids give them a hug,” he said, “and they’ll hug right back.”
Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens