SPIRIT OF STANLY 2024: The West Stanly Players: Over five decades of excellence in the arts

Theatre at West Stanly High School has a rich history and has been an important part of the curriculum and the identity of West Stanly since it first opened in 1962.

Countless students have passed across the stage in the theatre over the past 60 years, many of whom have gone on to professional careers in the entertainment industry.

The history of WSHS theatre began in 1963 with the production of “Jane Eyre,” directed by Romana Bennet and starring Judy Coble. At the time, drama productions were produced by the senior class. This tradition continued throughout the 1960s. Under the direction of Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Holbrooks students performed musicals like “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel” and others.

In 1970, seeing a need for a full-time theatre and speech teacher, the administration at West Stanly reached out to James D. Kennedy.

Kennedy, who was born in Stanly County, had already been teaching in the system and had produced plays at both Stanfield and Locust schools. Before coming back to Stanly to teach, Kennedy had been an accomplished actor, making a name for himself on stages all over North Carolina and beyond.

Upon arriving at West Stanly, Mr. Kennedy immediately made an impact. His goal was to continue the tradition set in the 60s, but to challenge students to go beyond the boundaries of the small town. He established a class, offering both speech and drama, and created a club dedicated to theatre and the arts. Thus, the West Stanly Players were born. Kennedy’s first production, the moving drama “Flowers for Algernon,” quickly established the level of perfection the players would become associated with for decades to come. It also set a pattern for students using what they learned in class and on stage to forge a career.

Ken Eudy, who starred in “Flowers for Algernon,” went on to become well-known from coast to coast as a newscaster.
Students would continue that tradition of following their dreams and using that drive for success that Kennedy instilled in them.

Although Kennedy had only planned to stay a few years at West Stanly before returning to his acting career, he quickly learned that he had found his calling. For the next 26 years students flocked to his classes to learn from the master and audiences filled the theatre to see what magic he would bring to stage next.

Musicals like “Hello Dolly,” “The King and I,” “The Music Man” and “West Side Story” wowed audiences while dramatic pieces like “Picnic,” “Our Town” and “Steel Magnolias” left them questioning that they were still in a high school.

Kennedy achieved his goals by never settling for mediocrity, demanding perfection and setting a standard for professionalism not associated with any other high school before or since. Students were given the opportunity to work hand and hand with theatre professionals, learning their craft and passing it along to the next generation.

Kennedy retired from West Stanly in 1997, but the legacy that he began in 1970 still remains today with former student Wes Tucker, now in his 27th year as director of the Players. Today the Players produce three shows a year — a Christmas show or dinner theatre in the fall, a student-driven arts celebration in the winter and their big-budget, main stage production in the spring.

Although Kennedy passed away in 2006, his words, wisdom and passion for the arts are passed on every time the theatre doors open.

The West Stanly Players constantly strive to push students to their full potential, to always climb to reach the top of the mountain and to continue the tradition.

Here are just a few former West Stanly Players working professionally in entertainment:

• JD Hart – Professional actor, singer, writer, producer;

• George Smart – Former professional Broadway performer, (“Phantom of the Opera”);

• Dionne Osborne – Professional vocal coach (Drake);

• Charles Johnson – Professional set designer, resident set designer Cape Fear Regional Theatre, college professor at Elon University;

• Eric Norbury – Broadway lighting designer;

• Chris Herring – Professional actor (LA);

• Andrew Enloe – Professional actor (LA), movie production crew;

• Chandler Black – Broadway technical director;

• Victor Bercher – Professional theatrical make-up artist;

• Davie Troublefield – Professional film and TV make-up artist (LA);

• Josh Jones – Filmmaker (Chicago); and

• Matt Slater, Chris Whittle, Ryan Furr – touring lighting designers and technicians.

“In the coming tomorrows, when the final curtain falls, the player will share the company of three noble companions —truth, beauty and art.” — James D. Kennedy, founder of the West Stanly Players

This article previously appeared in the Spirit of Stanly magazine.