By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Kalise Sprowl was one of 35 student thespians to appear in Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical “Oklahoma!” at El Camino Fundamental High School (ECHS).
But not in just any part.
Sprowl was the female-lead character “Laurey” and the only African American in the stage production, which was performed at the state-of-the-art ECHS Center for the Arts facility in March.
“Oklahoma!” is a musical set in what at the time was the Oklahoma Territory around 1900. The story centers on the love story between the beautiful farm girl Laurey and a handsome cowboy named Curly, the territory’s aspiration for statehood, and the rivalry between local farmers and cowboys.
The traditionally White-dominated stage production has been reimagined for the 21st century. Now the Tony winner for Best Revival of a Musical is touring nationally with a diverse cast, following in the footsteps of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” in which Black, Asian American, and Latino actors have portrayed America’s founding fathers and other historical characters since 2015.
Sprowl is part of a phenomenon sweeping stages across the country.
ECHS’s production, performed over three days, featured a multiracial cast. Of course, the production reached a benchmark.
“There hasn’t been a main, Black female lead in a long, long time,” Sprowl said. “I was the first in quite a while.”
That fact was a driver for Sprowl, who’s a senior.
“The directors said they were proud of me taking the opportunity,” she said.
One of 16 high schools in the San Juan Unified School District, ECHS has a 50% minority student population, according to U.S. News and World Report. The student enrollment is about 1,320 and is 52% White, 25.8% Latino, 9.2% Black, and 5.9% Asian.
Sprowl, a gifted singer who plans to enroll in college, said she was surprised at landing the lead. “I was talking to someone about it and they were like, ‘You might get a supporting character.’ I said, ‘Fine, you know better than me.’
“But it turned out they didn’t know better than me. I knew I could do it.”
The audition process was competitive but straightforward, Sprowl said. She read for different roles, including the female lead. When Sprowl was called back to audition again the next day, the pool of actors for lead parts was much smaller.
“They wanted us to read lines with everyone to see how it would fit in the show,” she said. “We all didn’t know if we would get a part. If you don’t fit you were asked to leave immediately. I actually was one of five people still in the room during the process. So obviously, we all fit. The next day we were all called back. Basically, that’s when I found out I landed the lead role.”
Sprowl admitted rehearsals were tough. Her confidence at times wavered. But in time, the other student actors “warmed up” to her. They began to build chemistry and she “never received bad criticism,” she said.
Despite early peer pressure, she reminded herself of the great opportunity to play a role that made a lot of female actors famous, including Shirley Jones, who starred in the 1955 film.
“I told myself that I would never get another chance like this in my high school career. I kept going,” Sprowl told The OBSERVER. “This was something I needed to do because I was cast to do it. On opening night, there were other Black girls my age, my underclassmates, and students from my classes who came to see me perform. They told me I did great. No one brought up the race thing.”
Sprowl of course was playing a role intended for a White female. With the exception of “Flower Drum Song,” a musical centered around a Chinese family from San Francisco, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s successful string of musical partnerships — which also included “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King And I,” “Cinderella” and “The Sound of Music” — were made for White audiences.
“I’ve always wanted to be in a production of Hamilton. I want to be in a production when I get older,” said Sprowl, who is also a fan of “West Side Story.”
“The first time I saw Hamilton I was like, ‘I need to do a musical.’ Then, “Oklahoma!” hit and I got a lead. Everything lined up.”
Sprowl said one of the great things about working in a high school musical with other students was the diversity and togetherness. But she also learned that a lead role is about responsibility.
“It’s about yourself when you’re the lead because you don’t want to let yourself down and feel bad,” Sprowl said. “It’s about yourself, teamwork, camaraderie, and not letting the cast down. I was not going to let anyone down.”
Her mother, Anna Marie Sprowl, is a local poet and visual artist who has performed at the Crocker Art Museum, the Guild Theater, and as a spoken-word artist with the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet. She also hosts Second Saturdays at the Brick House Art Gallery and Complex in Oak Park.
“My daughter is also a book illustrator,” Anna Marie Sprowl told The OBSERVER. “She’s quite the artist. She won’t brag about herself, but that’s OK. That’s my job.”
Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.