Tina Turner musical's cast and crew work with students at Sumner High School
Tina Turner’s early solo hit “Nutbush City Limits” rang out in a classroom at Sumner High School on Friday, as professional performer Karen Burthwright taught students some of the moves from a sequence in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.”
As dance captain for the touring production, Burthwright is responsible for keeping the performers’ moves sharp every night. On this day, she shared her knowledge with students in Sumner’s Arts Pathways program.
In a classroom on another floor, students in the school choir participated in a condensed master class on audition techniques with Ben Bogen, an assistant dance captain who also understudies for several roles.
Earlier, students gathered in the school auditorium to ask two dozen members of the show’s cast and crew the ins and outs of professional performance. Students had seen a matinee performance of the show earlier in the week at the Fabulous Fox Theatre, where it is booked through Sunday.
Turner, then known by her birth name of Anna Mae Bullock, graduated from Sumner in 1956. She moved from rural Tennessee to St. Louis as a teenager and got her start in professional music performing in the clubs of St. Louis and East St. Louis.
“Just being on these historic grounds, it’s really cool just to witness it and walk the halls where Tina walked and just to know that her early career was started here,” said Parris Lewis, one of the actors who alternates in the lead as Tina. “Being able to do this particular show and having the honor of portraying Tina in St Louis, where she had ties to the community and where people who possibly went to school with her are going to come and see us, has been really special.”
Accomplished alumni of Sumner High School include musician Chuck Berry, tennis star Arthur Ashe and comedian Dick Gregory.
Ronald Gregory, a longtime community leader, onetime Sumner track star and the late comedian’s brother, attended the Q&A session with the cast and crew and spoke briefly. Two classmates of the musical’s namesake also greeted the group.
Educators at Sumner added the Arts Pathways program in 2021 after supporters of the school, including a coalition of arts organizations, successfully persuaded the St. Louis school board to backtrack on its plan to close the historic high school. Students work with professionals from the Black Rep, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, Contemporary Art Museum, the Craft Alliance and other organizations.
The school visit on Friday could help inspire young St. Louisans — just as Turner’s music once inspired actor Ari Groover, who played the musical’s lead on Broadway and shares the role on tour.
“I grew up with Tina Turner, and for me it was cool as a kid to see this Black woman be the face of rock 'n' roll,” Grover said. “I [thought], she has such a power that I want to have as I grow up.”