A Season of Significance
OHS THEATRE PREPARES FOR THE FINAL CURTAIN AT KAYLA MIZE AUDITORIUM.
WRITTEN BY GINNY McCARLEY | PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOE WORTHEM
After more than four decades and hundreds of spectacular shows, students in the Oxford High School theater program are preparing to take their final bow on the stage of the Kayla Mize Auditorium and begin a brand new chapter in the newly constructed fine arts building on Charger Loop.
The building was in the plans for the high school’s new campus but was cut from the initial building phase due to costs. For the past few years, OHS students have been commuting to the Kayla Mize Auditorium at Oxford Middle School school for classes, rehearsals and performances.
Kayla Mize Auditorium contains countless memories, both beautiful and tragic, all of which OHS theater teacher and director John Davenport decided to commemorate in the final season on its stage. “A Season of Significance” features five shows that have been particularly important to the OHS theater program over the years.
“This is a ‘season of significance’ because every show to be performed has a special connection to this theater space and the people who acted here, cried here, slept here, directed here and lived here over the years,” Davenport wrote in the liner notes for the season’s program. “(The season) is about how that space has been a part of our lives, as we prepare to move and reflect on what it has meant to us.”
Each of the five shows in the 2019-2020 season has a connection to an alum who was part of the original production.
The season opened with “Noises Off” in September. OHS football coach Chris Cutliffe was in the class that built the set for the original production. The show got a slew of passionate responses, both positive and negative, when the department first performed it in 2004. Though some parents complained about costumes and material they found offensive in the show, the administration stood behind Davenport, and the department went on to flourish under his leadership.
“‘Noises Off’ taught us that we should take risks,” said Davenport, who was brought in to rebuild the theater department and was completely blindsided by the upset the play initially caused. “I realized that if I’m going to be here, I can’t cater to everything. We don’t choose things to push envelopes, but I believe that the integrity of the work is what is most important.”
The second show this season, “Blood Brothers,” has ties to a number of tragedies that rocked the department. “Tell Me It’s Not True” the final song in act two of the musical, is a haunting and beautiful number that OHS student Kayla Mize sang in “Scream Scenes III: The Dark Side of Broadway,” not long before her death. Students saw the musical in London in 2007, just weeks after a car accident killed Doug Marlette, playwright and friend of Davenport, who was on his way to Oxford to choreograph a show. In 2010, OHS students performed the musical, in the season following the sudden death of beloved teacher Caroline Fair. Mason Shivers, who starred as one of the brothers in 2010, returned as a musician in the orchestra for the recent production.
“‘Blood Brothers’ taught us how to heal,” Davenport said. “It really helped us give ourselves permission to heal.”
“’Tis the Season,” the programs’ holiday production, was the third run of an OHS Theatre original piece that combines a number of well-known holiday songs with fun choreography and lots of student participation. OHS alum Emma Pittman — who will make her Broadway debut in “Chicago” as Roxie Hart later this year after winning broadway.com’s “The Search for Roxie” in January — returned from New York City to choreograph the production.
“This theater is the reason why I am now living in New York City singing, dancing and acting as a professional,” Pittman said. “Coming back to work on ‘’Tis the Season’ was such a blast. Any way that I can contribute to this community, and inspire other young people to follow their dreams no matter what they are, is a privilege. Kayla Mize Auditorium was my home during my high school career, as it was for many. The work, friendships, discoveries, challenges and the art that is created in that space know no end. ‘Mr. D.’ changes many people’s lives, and I am so grateful to have been a part of his legacy at this theater. It’s an honor to be a part of one of the last shows in that space.”
Though all the shows chosen were instrumental to the department and program, the show that has perhaps the most significance is “God’s Favorite,” which will be performed Feb. 13-15.
Kayla Mize was the student director of the 2005 production of “God’s Favorite” when she was tragically killed in a car accident while returning to Oxford after a football playoff game. Davenport initially assumed that the students would not want to continue with rehearsals, but instead everyone pulled together to finish the show in her honor.
“I thought the cast would not go on with it,” Davenport said. “But they wanted to go back to work right away, and they wanted to make sure that we did it justice. They just wanted to make sure that the show was as fantastic as it could be for Kayla.”
Not only did the students rally to perform a phenomenal show in honor of Kayla, they also came together to petition the school board to rename the theater in honor of their friend.
“I didn’t really know it until then, but I learned that the students really need the program during difficult times,” said Davenport. “It really showed me the importance of what I was doing.”
For Kayla’s parents, Rick and Candy Mize, the renaming of the building was a powerful testament that the Oxford community loved, valued and remembered their daughter. Another OHS alum, parent and family friend, Joey Mistilis, helped set up the Kayla Sue Mize Endowment, a fund that provides scholarships to Oxford and Lafayette high school seniors who excel in the arts. So far, the Kayla Sue Mize Endowment has given more than $21,500 in awards. Four scholarships are awarded each year, two to seniors at Oxford High School and two to seniors at Lafayette High School.
Both the renaming of the auditorium and the formation of the endowment were part of an incredible outpouring of love and support from the Oxford community following Kayla’s death.
“It’s just a special storm to be caught up in,” Rick Mize said. “It’s a bittersweet thing for a parent, but it is a blessing.”
Nearly 15 years since Kayla’s death, her memory continues to shape the department. As John Davenport worked with the rising seniors to choose the five shows for this final season, the one show everyone agreed must be performed was “God’s Favorite.”
“I think it’s really important to keep Kayla Mize’s legacy alive in the arts because it shows that through everything, you matter,” said OHS senior Cady Pittman. “To me, it means that even after you’re gone, you still make a difference and an impact on those around you. We still keep her alive through the show, and that’s the point of theater. We continue telling the same stories over and over and over again, but they still hold the same weight despite what may have happened.”
Prowell Smith, another senior who helped choose the season’s shows, felt that the show was important because of the impact Kayla’s life had on the department.
“So much of my high school experience has been shaped around this theater program and the Kayla Mize Auditorium,” Smith said. “Kayla Mize showed us that theater is a great place to turn when tragedy strikes. Last year when we were choosing the shows for the season, it just seemed like a no-brainer. We had to honor Kayla and everything she did for this program. While I did not know Kayla personally, her impact on the theater department has helped us push ourselves to do our best, just like Kayla did.”
For Davenport — who has not only rebuilt the theater program as he was originally charged but also shaped it into one of the best in the region — the person who perhaps had the greatest impact on his life as a teacher was former OHS choir director and his mentor, Ava Bonds.
The final show of the season, “OHS: The Musical,” pays tribute both to Bonds and to the musical production that was so important to the school for so many years.
First performed in 1975, the annual musical staged in February was often the only production of the year, until Davenport joined the faculty. Sponsors from the community supported the show financially, and tickets often sold out in only a few hours.
“When I came to Oxford in 2000, (the musical) was such a strong tradition that I was just blown away,” Davenport said. “It would sell out every year. Ava didn’t start it, but she picked it up and took responsibility for it, and thanks to her, it really kept on going and became such a staple.”
“OHS: The Musical” will run April 16-18, and will be the final show for the OHS theater department on the stage of the Kayla Mize Auditorium. An OHS original, the show will cover the history of the OHS musical. Participating alumni include Courtney Mize, Charlie Davis, Abby Wilson and Ava Bonds’ children.
“When Mr. Davenport told me of his plans to dedicate this last musical in the Kayla Mize Auditorium to mom, my heart fluttered and my eyes filled with tears,” said Bonds’ daughter, Halon Gosset. “Immediately, a flood of wonderful musical memories and my mom filled my mind. In that moment, I was reminded just how proud I am to be her daughter, and how fortunate I was to see the impact that my mom, a person who truly loved her art, her students and her job, could have on a community. What a role model we all had, and what an amazing legacy she left. Thanks for the memories, Momma.”