PEMBROKE — You can hear the “Sock Hop” before you see it.
Music makes its way through the door of the theater room held slightly ajar by a chair at Purnell Swett High School. Inside that room, John Hodges reclines slightly on a gurney off duty from its part in the production. Of the energy and enthusiasm punching the air, he says matter-of-factly, “you can’t teach that.”
Hodges would know. He’s been part history teacher, part theater teacher for 26 years. For 17 of those, he was the creative force behind a popular high school production, “Remember the 60s,” that told the story of the decade during which Hodges was growing from a boy to a young adult.
Of this year’s 28-member cast, there are a few elementary and middle schoolers, some adults, a six-piece band and a freshman at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke joining Purnell Swett High students. It’s a rag-tag group of thespians that Hodges says might be his most talented bunch yet.
But the story of “Remember the 60s” begins a decade earlier with a play called “Sock Hop,” named after students who shed shoes at dances in the 1950s so not to scar the gymnasium floor.
“It was the first time going to the Civic Center,” Hodges said. “Back then it was a big, big deal … . Man it was so good, it just knocked everybody out … . Then we started the 60s show. It got so successful, every year there was a packed house, so it’s hard to walk away from that.”
Despite the success of “Remember the 60s,” Hodges wanted to return to the beginning, putting on “Sock Hop,” and checking an item off his bucket list.
“I just said in the back of my mind that I would do it before I retire, which is next year,” said Hodges, a musician who performs often locally, both as a solo act and as a member of Gold Rush.
Dressed in a bright azure poodle skirt, UNCP freshman Kelli Jacobs pauses to harp on the play.
“Rehearsal is creative with structure,” Jacobs says as another cast member floats by in a pair roller skates. “And the ending is the highlight. It brings all the craziness, the fun and comedy together to form one special point.”
“Violence only destroys,” she said, “and we should strive to prevent it.”
Mixed with high-energy dance numbers and off-the-wall comedy is a message of acceptance. But no better place can that message be seen than within the cast.
James Chavis, a senior shooting guard for the school’s basketball team, surprised himself with how much he enjoyed theater, which he took for the first time in the fall.
“It’s funny,” Chavis said. “I used to pick on my cousins because they did stuff like this, and now I’m up here doing it.”
As Chavis crooned “Blue Moon” on stage, senior Falon Strickland sang the same tune.
“It’s been a great experience,” Strickland said. “I’ve enjoyed getting to know everybody because I met a ton of new people since most of the cast is underclassmen.”
Underclassmen like ninth-grader Demaris Gonzalez, who is playing the part of an outcast, a role she’s familiar with. Her character, Maria, is picked on because she is new in town, has no friends and is Mexican.
“When I moved here, I moved from Myrtle Beach,” Gonzalez said of her own experience. “It was something different to get used to because I don’t talk like locals and they would make fun of me. Then, people started asking me questions instead of picking on me. Basically, after a while, they welcomed me with open arms.”
As the students directed themselves during rehearsal, driven by their own desire to perfect their performance, Hodges sat back and let them work out the kinks.
“You write something,” he said of the play, “and you think it’s going one place, but then it just takes over and becomes something different.”