Duke University men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s storied career ends this season with a kind of fairy-tale moment: a Final Four game against the Blue Devils’ archnemesis, the UNC Tar Heels.

Krzyzewski, who may well crown his retirement with a sixth national title, has been the subject of well-deserved accolades befitting the winningest basketball coach in Division I history.

Here in the Triangle, there are accolades, too, for the pending retirement of a public school theater teacher: Wendell Tabb, a Tony Award–winning Durham Public Schools teacher who will retire this year after serving more than three decades as director of the drama department at Hillside High School.

Hundreds of community members along with well over 100 of Tabb’s former students turned out to honor him this month and celebrate two plays he directed and staged that served as punctuation marks at the end of a sterling 35-year career.

The plays Tabb directed this month are literal storybook endings featuring two classic African tales. The first, Why Mosquitoes Buzz, is a virtual adaptation of the 1975 children’s book Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema. The second is a wonderfully staged adaptation of John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale, first published in 1987.

“Both plays are set in West Africa,” Tabb, always resplendently dressed in a dark, three-piece suit, told a capacity audience that had gathered in the John Gattis–Wendell Tabb Theater on Sunday, March 20, while he stood in front of the closed curtain of the Wendell Tabb Stage.

“I wanted to go back home, for the ancestors, to bring the spirits of where it all started,” Tabb explained, before paying tribute to his late parents and his sister, wife, and son. Tabb honored his mother’s memory and told the audience that she had sat in the same seat in the theater for more than a decade while attending every school production he had directed.

Tabb’s decision to direct two West African plays—whose themes include kindness, humility, and an origin legend about cause and effect—is not surprising.

The productions pay homage to his study of the art form at NC Central University’s Department of Theatre (this writer was a college classmate) and honor the legacy of Hillside High School, which is one of only four historically Black high schools in the state that survived after segregation, along with West Charlotte, E.E. Smith in Fayetteville, and Greensboro Dudley.

Coach K’s teams traveled all over the country to display their athletic excellence. Meanwhile, Tabb, in 1995, developed an international professional student exchange program that enabled his budding thespians to study and perform on six continents and all over New York and Los Angeles.

“I consider this to be one of my greatest accomplishments,” he said in the program. His “next greatest accomplishment,” Tabb said, was starting a Celebrities in the Classroom program that allowed students to participate in acting workshops with some of the industry’s most notable artists. Over the years, Hillside drama students sat at the feet of Danny Glover, Bill Cobbs, Obba Babatundé, Phylicia Rashad, and Margaret “Shug” Avery, along with the likes of famed choreographer George Faison and Hillside graduates such as fashion icon André Leon Talley and legendary gospel recording artist Shirley Caesar.

Tabb’s cultivation of the theater discipline and his nurturing of aspiring artists have yielded impressive fruit. His former students include Academy Award–winning film director Kevin Wilson Jr.; actress April Parker Jones, who has a recurring role in the new Peacock drama series Bel-Air; Lauren E. Banks, who plays Siobhan Quays in the Showtime series City on a Hill; and Santron Freeman, a dancer who has worked with Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, and Mariah Carey.

Another one of Tabb’s students, Joshua Suiter, is a 2018 Hillside graduate and current theater major at Greensboro’s NC Agricultural and Technical University.

Suiter, who plans on moving to Atlanta after graduating in May, says Tabb has been a key part of his decision to pursue an acting career. Most recently, Suiter had the honor of being a trophy presenter during Sunday’s Academy Awards, an evening that became infamous, with a slap heard round the world, when Will Smith mounted the stage and confronted Chris Rock after the comedian made a joke at the expense of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who suffers from alopecia.

Suiter said that after the incident the main goal backstage was “to try and keep the energy going, and not try to take away from the great production, instead of reflecting on that one moment.” (Suiter added that Will Smith, in response to 2015 criticism from Jada Pinkett Smith and others that the Oscars are not inclusive, was responsible for his and fellow A&T classmate Zaria Woodford’s appearance at the event to represent historically Black colleges and universities. “Our goal was to make sure [Smith’s] dream stayed alive,” Suiter adds.)

“Another proud moment for Hillside,” Tabb wrote in a text to the INDY this week, in reference to Suiter’s Oscars participation.

“He wasn’t just a teacher,” Suiter says about Tabb. “He devoted his time, his soul, and money. He pushed us as actors. I overcame my fear of singing and he cast me as the Tin Man in The Wiz. Ninety percent of us weren’t even theater students. He’s a key part of a lot of people’s success, not just mine.”

The veteran educator’s tenure at Hillside has not been without its rough moments.

In 2017, Tabb filed a federal lawsuit against Durham Public Schools, alleging racial discrimination and retaliation. Over more than a decade, he claimed to have been cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages. This wasn’t merely the result of difficult school-funding choices, his lawsuit insisted. Tabb said he was subjected to payback after he sued the school board in 2006 over the mistreatment of his son, who has cerebral palsy.

At the crux of Tabb’s lawsuit was the allegation that, in addition to serving as director of Hillside’s drama department, he also functioned as an unofficial, unpaid technical director, with a workload that included hanging lights, creating sound designs, and building sets.

“Despite the success of the Hillside High School Drama Program,” Tabb’s complaint says, “[the school board has] failed to provide Hillside High School with the same level of staffing and funding that it provides at comparable drama programs in high schools that are not predominantly black.”

The case, Tabb tells the INDY, is still pending.

Tabb is a native of Louisburg. While a student at NCCU, his studies included a deep dive into all forms of the discipline, including the technical aspects of the craft and its history. He learned that theater, at its greatest, reflects the greater society. There was the study of modern playwriting masters like Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, and Eugene O’Neill; the importance of Black voices in the American mix with the works of Lorraine Hansberry, Vinnette Carroll, and August Wilson; and the appreciation of a global view while studying and performing the works of the African writers Wole Soyinka and Athol Fugard, along with the European works of Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and of course, William Shakespeare.

Tabb says that while enrolled at NCCU, he had no idea that a semester of student teaching in 1984 at the old Hillside High, just across the street from the university, “would later lead to 35 years of pure educational and artistic satisfaction.”

That artistic zeal helped to make a difference in the lives of thousands of students who attended Hillside over the decades, and thousands more across the state who attended the school’s educational matinee series to witness the pure magic of live theater.

“To witness the excitement of their faces gave me the desire to come back year after year to repeatedly live those moments,” he stated in the program before the final staging of the two plays. The phrase “pure magic” aptly describes the Hillside cast of more than 100 young technicians, actors, dancers, and singers who performed Why Mosquitoes Buzz and Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.

Why Mosquitoes Buzz was filmed virtually, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and made history as the school’s first cinematic production. In addition to superb casting, there was a delightful, albeit surprising musical soundtrack created by Xavier Cason, a former school board member, who was the school’s longtime band director.

Meanwhile, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, with its take on the old Cinderella morality tale, was magnificent in every aspect—lighting, costuming, set design, character development, et al. (The choreography of Toya Chinfloo and Mekhi Burns deserves a special shout-out, too.) The level of professionalism, artistry, and beauty executed by the youthful, energetic dancers was astonishing and inspiring.

Before the Sunday afternoon performances, Hillside High principal William Logan said Tabb’s work—which began at the school’s old location in 1987 when he directed his first play, I Just Wanna Tell Somebody—is “a vision that came to fruition.”

Logan said the greater community did not witness the “fights behind the scenes to ensure the theater had everything it needed,” including a $1 million lighting system and recently opened musical studio.

“So often, Black and brown children are minimalized,” Logan said. “So often, Black and brown children are sidelined. Wendell Tabb recognized what God has placed in them.”

Logan added that the day’s performances marked the dedicated educator’s final curtain call, but that every goodbye ain’t gone forever.

“He’ll be back,” Logan said. “I don’t know in what capacity, but he’ll be back.”

At the end of the day’s film and stage performances, well over 100 of Tabb’s former students gathered on stage with him for a final curtain call.

Tabb, who had a little piece of a jump shot in college, is an avid ACC basketball fan.

“Do you think,” he texted me afterward, “I had more former students to return than Coach K?”

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.