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MSSD students bring the world of James and the Giant Peach onstage

Image: The cast and crew of James and the Giant Peach.

The cast and crew of James and the Giant Peach.

Image: Fall Showcase director Jessica Willoughby directs a scene with the Old Green Grasshopper, played by MSSD student Oscar Zayas.

Fall Showcase director Jessica Willoughby directs a scene with the Old Green Grasshopper, played by MSSD student Oscar Zayas.

“James Trotter is a young, miserable orphan living with his mean and stingy Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, but don’t despair,” said Jessica Willoughby with a smile. “He finds a new and different home with the help of some friends. To find out how, you are going to need to come to our show!”

Willoughby is the director of the Model Secondary School for the Deaf’s (MSSD) fall production of James and the Giant Peach, a story written by Roald Dahl. The author draws on the theme of children finding their place in the world in ways Willoughby sees similar to how the teenage actors in the MSSD production navigate high school.

The production will kick off with a Halloween matinee on October 31, a great time to unleash a tale of magical creatures. “We will be using projected shadow imagery and human scale costumed versions of the insects,” said Willoughby.

The storyline opens with James receiving a paper sack of magical worms. On his way home, James trips and the worms burrow into the ground beneath an old peach tree. Overnight one peach grows to the size of a house, while inside a group of insects grow to the size of humans. James crawls into the peach and the new friends travel to the sea and then across the ocean, having grand adventures all along the way.

“For the MSSD play, I wanted to create an American Sign Language [ASL] production suitable for young audiences, especially for deaf and hard of hearing children. There are not enough productions that are accessible to them,” said Willoughby.

The MSSD fall showcase is Willoughby’s first experience with directing a high school cast. “One of the greatest challenges was working with the students on the ASL translation of the story and how to convey the conceptual level of the storyline and characters. I work with the actors on memorizing and internalizing the script. The student actors are finding creative ways they can internalize their characters through relating to their own experiences with loneliness, facing up to challenges, wanting independence, and needing the support of friends,” said Willoughby.

Willoughby brings to the production her extensive experience from Gallaudet University, from which she graduated in May 2013 having majored in theater and English. At Gallaudet she gained directing and stage managing experience with productions of Spoon River Anthologies, Charlotte’s Web, Noises Off, and Abbé l’Épée. She also wrote and directed an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

“I see James as a message of hope and empowerment. He finds success at the end of the story. In the production we use a transformation of color from dark to light that follows the development of James’s character,” she said. “I see the play as a metaphor for hope that our high school actors can hold onto—there is much waiting on the horizon for them beyond high school.”

Performance dates:

  • Thursday, October 31, at 10 a.m.
  • Friday, November 1, at 7 p.m.
  • Saturday, November 2, at 7 p.m.

All performances: Theatre Malz, at MSSD on the campus of Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20002-3695

Ticket prices and reservations:

  • $8 - Adults $7 - College students/senior citizens with I.D.
  • $5 - Children ages 13-17
  • $3 - Children ages 4-12
  • $3 - Per person for school groups Free - Children ages 3 and under

Reservations: E-mail Yolanta.Rozynek@gallaudet.edu, call (202) 651-5031, or fax (202) 651-5109.