Last fall’s gala for the premiere of the musical The Color Purple was a landmark night for Hillside High School’s lauded theater program. 

Danny Glover and Margaret Avery, stars of the iconic 1985 film of the same name, were on hand. So was Donna “Kokumo” Buie, a Hillside grad who had a memorable scene toward the end of that movie, as well as Kevin Wilson Jr., another Hillside alumnus whose short film had just been nominated for an Oscar. 

Program director Wendell Tabb’s thirty-two-year tenure has produced all kinds of success stories: graduates on TV and off-Broadway, students gracing stages all over the world, and more than a hundred awards from the state theater conference. 

But in 2017, Tabb filed a federal lawsuit against Durham Public Schools, alleging racial discrimination and retaliation. Over more than a decade, he says, he’s 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 insists. Tabb says 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—which is headed to mediation on August 15—is the allegation that, in addition to serving as director of Hillside’s drama department, the soft-spoken, always impeccably dressed Tabb also functioned as an unofficial, unpaid technical director, with a workload that included hanging lights, creating sound designs, and building sets. 

The white theater directors at Durham’s three other high schools—Riverside, Jordan, and Durham School of the Arts—have all had technical directors since the 2005–06 school year, the lawsuit alleges. The complaint says it’s no coincidence Hillside’s student population is about twice as black as the other schools: About 79 percent of Hillside students were African American during the 2016–17 school year, compared to about 41 percent at Jordan, 44 percent at Riverside, and 36 percent at DSA, a magnet school. 

“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.” 

“What Wendell is saying is, ‘Look, you supplied technical directors to Riverside, DSA, and Jordan,’” says Stewart Fisher, Tabb’s attorney. “‘My program is as good, if not better than those programs. Why aren’t you giving me one?’”

The complaint also alleges that Tabb has been required “as a condition of his continuing employment” by Hillside administrators and DPS officials to manage the school’s performing arts auditorium—scheduling events and maintaining and operating lighting and sound systems. The complaint lists ninety-two events between 2014 and 2017, including new student orientations, quiz bowls, leadership summits, science fairs, senior pictures, yearbook pictures, and banquets, for which Tabb acted as manager. 

“Despite repeated requests,” the complaint says, “he has not been paid for this work.” DPS’s white theater directors, on the other hand, either don’t do this extra work or are compensated for it, the lawsuit alleges. 

According to the complaint, Tabb began bringing up the issue of supplemental pay as far back as 1999, and since 2004 has contacted DPS officials and members of the Board of Education about it. In the summer of 2011, he told administrators that he was “paying the price, mentally and physically,” for not having a theater director. School officials responded that Hillside’s principal made that decision—but Hillside’s principal told Tabb he’d lobbied DPS for the theater director, the complaint says. 

Over the next several years, the lawsuit says, Tabb pleaded with school officials for a technical assistant and additional compensation, but his requests were ignored. Finally, on May 12, 2016, he filed a discrimination complaint with DPS. That October, DPS established new criteria for a performing arts supplement that increased Tabb’s pay but “still did not address the historical deficits,” according to his lawsuit. 

In the complaint, Tabb argues that at least part of the reason for his alleged mistreatment is that top DPS administrators have “retained a lingering resentment against” Tabb over a high-profile federal lawsuit he and his wife filed against the system in 2006, in which they alleged a special-needs therapist had assaulted their then-ten-year-old son by taping his mouth shut. The Tabbs settled that lawsuit in 2009 for $75,000. 

Colin Shive, a lawyer for DPS, declined to comment, saying the school board “speaks through its court filings.”

In those filings, DPS denied that race played a role in its decision not to hire a technical director at Hillside or pay Tabb for his additional work, and argued that Tabb had failed to “sufficiently state a claim for race-based discrimination.”

In February, U.S. District Court Judge William L. Osteen rejected parts of DPS’s motion to dismiss and allowed Tabb to proceed with his claim that the school board had discriminated against him by failing to pay him for additional work for which it had compensated white theater directors. 

But Osteen dismissed other parts of Tabb’s complaint, saying he hadn’t produced evidence of retaliation or that he’d been compelled to work as an unpaid technical director. (Osteen called this extra work a “laudable … independent decision … [Tabb] made for the benefit of his students.”)

Fisher says he’s guardedly optimistic headed into potential settlement talks. 

“We would hope the school board recognizes he has not been treated fairly, and we can reach a resolution,” he says.

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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