It seems to be a reasonable request that may cost extra now but could save taxpayers a significant amount of money in the future.

A teacher at Northern High School in Durham has asked school administrators repeatedly to include a designated theatre arts classroom in the performing arts wing of Northern’s pending replacement school, a 250,000-square-foot building that will stand on 227 acres on North Roxboro Road when it opens in 2023.

For Irving Truitt, director of the school’s theatre program, the design of the performing arts wing doesn’t make sense, unless there’s a yearning to mix vehicle exhaust fumes with lines from Shakespeare’s Othello.

According to design plans, the performing arts wing will house the school auditorium, a technical theatre space, chorus, and band rooms. Meanwhile, dance and drama will share space next to the replacement school’s automotive program. 

Truitt, who has been asking school administrators to reconsider the school design since 2017, wonders why. He says the theatre program’s rightful place is in the performing arts wing, away from the noise and exhaust pipes of the automotive program. 

Truitt says his emails to Durham Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent Pascal Mubenga and other administrators routinely go unanswered.

So, Truitt helped organize a small but dedicated cast of students, educators, and parents who staged a protest Thursday in front of the DPS Staff Development Center on Hillandale Road, which coincided with a school board meeting.

The school board members walked past the cadre of protesters who held signs that read, “Why Is Theater Separated From The Arts?” and “Theater Students Deserve Better.”

Moments before the protest started, Julius Monk, DPS chief operating officer, whose duties include overseeing school maintenance and construction, told the INDY that the public should “look at the actual space” in the design plans.

“The theatre stage is literally across the hall from the classroom,” Monk says. “I challenge anyone to find a better theatre than what we’re building at Northern.”

Truitt was standing within earshot of Monk while he spoke with the INDY about a classroom across the hall from the theatre stage.

“That’s not true,” Truitt says. “It’s the technical theatre shop that’s located from across the stage.”

Denise Barnes, a retired DPS teacher who taught theatre to middle school students for 25 years, led the protesters’ chants.

“What do we want?” Barnes asked.

“Theatre!” The protesters answered.

“Where do we want it?”

“In the arts wing!”

Board members Alexandra Valladares and Frederick Ravin III both stopped to read several of the signs before going inside the building for the meeting.

“You need a classroom to teach,” Barnes, the retired teacher, told the INDY. “Theatre is not just someone jumping up on stage and performing. It’s about theory, history, voice and diction, improvisation, and the teaching of social skills. It’s about humanitarianism. You’re teaching philanthropy because you’re giving to the community each time there’s a performance. There’s costuming, makeup, design, and all of the preparation that’s needed to go on stage.”

Taylor Walker, a former Northern student, graduated last year from Winston-Salem State University. She credits her work with Truitt as a big reason why she was able to attend college on a performing arts scholarship.

“Theatre matters just as much as the other performing arts programs,” she says.

Monk and Northern High Principal Dan Gilfort issued a statement late Friday about the replacement school and its theatre arts spaces.

Monk and Gilfort say building designers and DPS staff revised building plans to support the theatre arts program “in excess” of state guidelines.  They noted “multiple rounds of revisions” to the technical theatre space to support theatre theory and practice along with the provision of an additional classroom. The revisions occurred, the administrators said, all at the behest of Truitt. 

Monk and Gilfort say the redesign also included the addition of two sinks and a chase for future washer and dryer hookups to the technical theatre space, “neither of which are included in [state] guidelines.”

Monk and Gilfort also point to “additional storage and an office” that have been added to the theatre arts area. 

“All of these changes were made late in the design process,” according to their joint statement.

Alas, the drama continues. 

Truitt says the administrators are considering the technical theatre space, which they describe as a “prep space area,” as an additional classroom.

He says Gilfort and Monk still failed to address the major concern of not having in the arts wing a theatre classroom to teach students acting, directing, producing, history, and theater appreciation.  

“As required by the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction 2019 standards for grades 9-12 a theater classroom should be in the design on the performing arts wing,” Truitt wrote in a statement Friday to the school district, which he shared with the INDY. “Although band, dance, chorus has its own space in the performing arts wing, theatre does not have its separate classroom.”

The demonstrators’ demands weren’t on the school board agenda Thursday. Still, nearly half of the 46 comments fielded by the board were from parents, teachers, and former students who asked them to reconsider the performing arts wing design.

“Theatre is such a valuable resource in our schools, and it should be treated as such,” Durham resident Carolyn Allen wrote to the board before their meeting. “I cannot imagine why the building would be designed in such a way as to leave theatre out of the performing arts wing, but this is an error that begs to be corrected. I am aware that there will be a cost to changing an approved design. However, I believe it is worth whatever the cost is now to fix something that will affect countless students and staff members for the next 50 years.”

Nicole Gibbs, another resident, told the board members in a statement that the layouts of the performing arts spaces in the design “blatantly insert inequities,” especially for the theatre program.

Gibbs says design inequities include the omission of a designated theatre arts classroom in the arts wing, which is “prioritizing chorus and band to receive superior learning spaces” and “imposing the dangers of an automotive program in the performance wing.”

One notable supporter at the protest was longtime Hillside High School teacher Wendell Tabb, a Tony Award winner for his contributions to theatre education. 

Tabb says he’s willing to assist Monk and his team in redesigning the replacement high school’s performing arts wing to include a dedicated theatre classroom. 

Tabb says he was fortunate to have been invited to advise in the design of the current Hillside High School building, which opened in the 1990s.  

“Nearly 25 years later, Hillside Theatre is still one of the most used facilities in the district and community,” he wrote to school officials in November. “For the most part, the performing arts wing was well planned and designed with the next generation of students in mind.” 

As a caveat, Tabb notes that Hillside High’s performing arts wing had one major flaw: the band room was too small to accommodate the school’s marching band. 

“DPS had to later correct this mistake by having taxpayers invest in a brand new stand-alone band room and suite,” Tabb says. “DPS should not be making the same mistake in 2020 that was made in 1995.”

DPS officials expect construction of the new school to begin this summer.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to

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