Student stage crew members will no longer darken their faces during school plays and musicals, Bethel Park administrators reiterated at the school board’s March 20 committee meeting. Stagehands, who are backstage workers tasked with swapping scenery on the sets, operating lights and props, typically wear all black clothing so that they practically disappear in the darkness around the stage. For decades, stagehands at Bethel Park High School took it a step further and used burnt cork to darken their faces as well.
Last week, one person who watched the high school’s spring musical, “Legally Blonde,” saw the darkened faces and emailed school district leaders, worrying that the practice might be misinterpreted as performing in blackface, alluding to racist plays portraying black people.
“We decided to discontinue the practice. We recognized that it may unintentionally send the wrong message,” board President Donna Cook said. “We want to make sure everyone in Bethel Park feels welcomed and valued.”
The student stage crew’s members were told to stop darkening their faces at the next show. They were given black balaclavas as an alternative way to obscure their faces.
Several students spoke during public comment and complained that the abrupt change left them feeling confused and hurt because it seemed that they were being accused of racism.
Parent Dean Lampietro said the reason behind the practice to darken stagehands’ faces is innocent. It’s also a practical way to camouflage crew members so that they do not distract from the play, Lampietro said.
“Perhaps it’s this person that complained that needs educated. A simple explanation would have helped,” he said.
Students also complained that the balaclavas were hot and uncomfortable and could obscure their vision. Alex Kepler, student stage manager for “Legally Blonde,” suggested that the students be consulted to come up with a long-term solution for future plays and musicals.
“We will respect any decision you make, but where you failed is in communication,” she told the board.
Superintendent Joseph Pasquerilla accepted that criticism, but said that the decision to stop stagehands from darkening their faces was the right one.
“You’re not going to agree with me all the time, but I appreciate the way you conducted yourselves,” Pasquerilla told the students. “You have been very respectful.”
In another matter, the school board is ready to move forward on a plan to hire three new police officers, which would quadruple the district’s security force from one officer to four. The beefed up security is in direct response to the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people were killed.
Bethel Park municipal police also work with the district to provide a police presence as needed. The three new officers will split time between the high school, the two middle schools and the five elementary schools.