HUNTINGTON — As the musical “Hairspray” builds to its dramatic finale, Rhonda Joplin walks into the middle of the crowd and belts out “I Know Where I’ve Been” with the kind of presence that makes you think she was born on the stage.
But somehow, the Huntington Outdoor Theatre production of the musical “Hairspray” is the stage debut for the 42-year-old.
Joplin, a Williamson, W.Va., native and now a faithful member of New Life Church, grew up in the church, but is having the time of her life this summer in “Hairspray,” which lights up Ritter Park at 8:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday, July 19-21 and July 26-28.
Get there early as gates open at 6:30 p.m. for picnicking. The children’s pre-show, “Disney Extravaganza!,” and the community pre-show begin at 7 p.m. Bring lawn chairs or blankets, cooler, etc.
Performing this week for the pre-show will be HOT’s children’s camp, Bridgett’s Dance Academy, a preview of Curtains Up Players’ production of “Shrek: The Musical,” and last but not least, H.O.T. alumni and Nashville singer/songwriter Stephen Salyers, who will be singing on Friday and Sunday.
Admission is $15; $13 for seniors 65 and older and kids 5-12; children under 5 are free. Groups of 20 tickets or more are $12 per ticket.
In the show, which tackles segregation in 1962 Baltimore through the eyes of groups of black and white teens and their moms who are trying to get their kids to be the next dance sensation on the popular “Corny Collins Show.” Joplin stars as Motormouth Maybelle, the woman on a mission to shine a light on civil rights in 1962 Baltimore.
Joplin, who has been singing since she was 5 or 6 in the church, said she was hesitant at first to think about trying out for her first role in community theater.
“T-Anne See (a theater patron who attends New Life) sent me a text and said why don’t you go audition for ‘Hairspray?’ and I was like immediately no way,” Joplin said. “But then I felt like it was almost a thing I needed to do. She had already spoke to (H.O.T. director Helen Freeman) about me and Helen gave me the part which was a huge chance on her part because I am not an actress so for her to take a chance on me. I am really appreciative of it and it really makes me want to do more.”
Playing the role of a seminal and powerful woman embroiled in the heart of the Civil Rights struggle has already affected her.
“What I like about the musical is how segregation comes about in that community,” Joplin said. “I like the ending of that and it has really opened my eyes to how people were back then and so I’m reading more about it and about Frederick Douglass and slavery and looking into my own family history and it’s really opened my eyes as to some of the issues that were back then that we really don’t have to deal with now on that scale.”
Joplin said she isn’t the only one who has been impacted and thinking about race relations thanks to the humorous but message-filled musical.
“I was speaking to a lady at work and she came Sunday night and was saying she didn’t realize the struggles that African-Americans went through but when I sung the song, ‘I Know Where I Have Been’ it really came to light for her,” Joplin said. “That’s profound because there is a lot of history behind the racism and segregation and just treating people badly because they are different. I think there are a lot of us walking around who because we never experienced it ourselves and it has not been out front that we blindly look away from it. That was amazing.”
Freeman said that Joplin has been a joy because of her honed singing ability and her willingness to work extra hard to learn the acting side of the show.
“I was excited because Rhonda wanted to learn so much and was excited about learning,” Freeman said. “She was really scared but she and I bonded quickly and she knew that I loved her and that she just really grew like crazy. … She didn’t have a lot of confidence in herself, but she then worked really hard and stayed and worked extra with me and her attitude is what is amazing. I told her that you know the Lord must have wanted you to do it.”
Interestingly, Joplin is just one of four New Life choir members who are in the show. Miranda Pierson (ensemble), Barry Westmoreland (Seaweed Stubbs) and Christina Stradwick (Kamilah) also star in “Hairspray.”
A Marshall student who also works full-time at Valley Health Systems, on Third Avenue, Joplin said at first she leaned on her friends from church but then got to know and be friends with so many folks who are in “Hairspray.”
“When we first started out I was like at least I know three or four people but as we progressed I started making more and more friends and the cast is just free and you’re able to be yourself.
Everybody has been so wonderful and it’s just been one of the best summers I have had in a long time.”
Known for her vivacious smile, Joplin said Evan Sullivan, a University of Kentucky grad who plays Link Larkin, commented on her perpetual smile and great attitude.
“Evan said you’re always smiling and I started thinking about it and it’s because I can’t believe I am backstage,” Joplin said. “All of these actors and actresses and I am among them doing one of the leads. That to me is amazing. When I go there at 6:30 p.m. that is my reality check. I am back here getting ready and I should be the one paying at the door to see the performance and here I am backstage. I think that is phenomenal. It blows my mind and I don’t take it for granted. I always praise God and love on him while I am waiting and after the show, I thank him for getting me through it and ready to come back the next day. Every day is surreal.”