The day before their UIL competition, the Paradise Junior High one act play group rushed through their stage set-up while high school students timed them.
Over the course of seven minutes, a church, candy store, restaurant and trolley stop appeared, and then eighth grader Parker Burross took center stage.
Burross plays Lemuel, the drifter main character of “The Cop and the Anthem,” a play based on the short story of the same name by O. Henry.
“He’s kind of a failure in his own eyes,” Burross said of Lemuel. “He wants to be rich and wealthy, but he’s not. So what he does is he lives on a bench, and he’s going to freeze to death in New York in the winter if he doesn’t get arrested.”
Burross’ character spends the length of the play attempting multiple schemes to rouse the police to throw him in jail – petty theft, disorderly conduct, vandalism – none of which are successful.
“My character is pretty ego-related, and people say I’m the same,” Burross said. “So I just kind of try to make him me. I have fun with it and joke around.”
Jessie Wright, a seventh grader, plays an old woman who swindles Burross out of a dime for a good luck charm. She had to practice lowering her voice to perfect the speech of her elderly role.
“I love acting,” Wright said. “You get to create your own character.”
A standout scene is Burross’ discussion with seventh grader Lilly Smith’s candy shop owner, whom he unsuccessfully attempts to steal from. For her role, Smith learned to fake cry.
“I try to think about what it would be like if I were in the situation,” Smith said. “I try to empathize with someone else.”
Almost all of the performers are newcomers to one act, and their director, high school art teacher Lorie Harkins, said she’s been pleased with how much they’ve accomplished.
“A lot of them felt very victorious once their lines were memorized, and then they shortly realized there was much, much more to this,” Harkins said.
“I’m feeling very good. I’m very proud of them.”
The students compete at their UIL zone contest in Jacksboro Wednesday, but they’ll perform the play for the public at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 9, in the high school cafeteria.
“I would say they would be surprised by the level of performance that junior high kids can put on,” Harkins said. “It will be an enjoyable night of laughter.”