It is an uncommon opportunity to witness a work of art that you know will stick with you in a profound way. The audience realized it had come across such an moment when four haunting silhouettes appeared at the end of Ken Rush’s original one-act play “The Forgotten Ones,” performed by his West Orange High School students as the final one-act of this year’s District 5 Thespians festival.
The community depicted in the play is a Southern Baptist congregation in the 1930s—not the most likely group to welcome any outsiders. When Sara Harper (Jaime Sharp)—a black schoolteacher—and her four disabled students show up looking for somewhere to belong, they aren’t immediately invited into open arms.
But each of those students has a story to tell. Chester (Aidan Wamsley) was born without arms, but losing his mother as a toddler was a bigger challenge. Bertie May (Deanna Hubbard) can’t hear, but only seeing her friend drown as a child was traumatic enough.
The tension in the audience was truly tangible when a girl from the town, played by Grace Gustino, fell into a creek. A stark and perfectly timed switch to blue lighting, watery sound effects and Gustino’s slow, rolling movements put us in the creek with her until she surfaced to gasp for air. When she went under again, we held our breath with her.
Rupert (Asher Adams), one of Sara’s students, jumped in and saved the drowning girl—but it cost him his life.
In a closing monologue by Matt Guernier, we learned that the town’s attitude had shifted after the incident at the creek. Sara became the school’s teacher, and her students had been embraced after Rupert’s heroic act, though they were each taken by sickness or tragedy to join him before reaching old age.
Who are the unlikely heroes in our lives? Who are the ones whose hearts can make a difference?
They’re all around us, but they’re too often forgotten.
Rush’s inspiration was his wife, Sara, a teacher for students with special needs.
“Her gift to them was that she loved and cared for each and every one like they were her own children,” Rush wrote in his playwright commentary. “Sara Harper is Sara Rush.”
Rush wanted to write a play that would highlight the specific talents of his current students. They rose to the occasion—some by realistically portraying mentally and physically disabled children of a bygone era, others by embracing the intolerant mentality of uppity school board members, others still by designing complex sets and executing seamless changes.
“Watching the characters develop, striving to meet (Rush’s) expectation and his vision for this play to come to life is fascinating,” stage manager Katie Householder said. “The actors have taken the opportunity that comes with doing an original play to develop the character based on their strengths, without preconceived notions.”
Contact Catherine Kerr at [email protected].