Posted in Teaching, Theatre

A Portrait Inscribed “To My Teacher”

When I saw Corey Mitchell’s picture posted on Facebook, I was reminded of how familiar he seemed to me. That was back in July, not long after the Hickory Community Theatre announced that he would direct the musical Hair. The show would open in September, which was still a spot in the distance back in mid-July. I was unpacking stacks of boxes, ones that had sat untouched in my house since 2013. After our lives were upended in 2012–when my husband was laid off–we relocated from Richmond, Virginia, to a house in Lenoir–a Dutch Colonial Revival that for all its beauty lacked the storage space provided by a two-car garage and a partially finished basement. The contents of my husband’s cubicle in Richmond had already found a home: the office of the newspaper editor (the job that had brought us to Lenoir). The shelves of books and drawers of files that had filled my own office towered precariously like a cardboard city in what was supposed to be the guest bedroom. Instead it was one of those rooms that you hope guests will never see.


Then after five years as an adjunct, I was offered a full-time teaching job. I had my own office again but not the time to move into it. So after the school year ended in May, I began to unpack the artifacts of my buried life and transport them to campus. As I opened box after box, fragments of those earlier years of teaching reentered my consciousness, including the image of a young man who appeared in my mind as a decades-younger version of Corey Mitchell, a young man I’d taught at UNC-Wilmington. Hadn’t I read that Corey had graduated from UNCW?–and didn’t I teach a Mitchell there?

Not long after that–a couple of days later, perhaps–I opened a box that contained all of my old grade books, all the way back to the first semester I taught, as a grad student, back in 1990. The gradebook that I used two years later at UNCW was the oldest in the stack, one passed down to me by my parents, an unused one pulled from one of their own file cabinets after they retired. The column for student names in that vintage Hall’s Class Record Book was so narrow that only the last names fit. I found what I was looking for between Lofton and Onuffer: Mitchell. I was relatively certain that it was Corey.

As the director of Hair at HCT, Corey was working closely with the theatre’s Artistic Director, Pam Livingstone, whom I knew from my own stage work there, so I sent her this email:

Corey Mitchell has looked familiar to me since I saw his face on the Tonys and in the news back in 2015, now I may know why. I read recently that he’s a graduate of UNC-Wilmington. I taught there for the 1991-92 school year before moving to Tallahassee to begin my PhD work.

The last class that I taught at UNCW was a four-week summer survey of American literature. When you teach a class of thirty-seven students for only a month, you don’t remember much about  them 25-plus years later. But I do remember a highly intelligent, charismatic, deep-voiced young man who was clearly going places, Today I found my gradebook from that year. I didn’t record the students’ first names, but ‘Mitchell’ is there, and I think it’s Corey.

Would you please ask him when he attended UNCW? If he was my student, I would like to speak with him briefly before one of the rehearsals.

Pam answered, yes, it was Corey, and he came into sharper focus. I could see him sitting in my office. He was wearing a hat. He often wore a hat. I began to remember part of a conversation we’d had. I emailed him to recount how he’d spoken with me about his admiration for Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
Today, a month after I found his name in that old gradebook, I went to HCT’s rehearsal hall to surprise him with a brief pre-rehearsal visit. I chose today because it was my first day of teaching for the fall semester. Today I met thirty-seven of the one-hundred-plus students who will teach me this semester–as Corey taught me–as much, if not more, than I will teach them.

After I introduced myself to Corey, he invited me to sit down. He remembered reading an excerpt from The Joy Luck Club in my American literature survey course. He had enjoyed that chapter of Tan’s novel so much that he bought a copy of the book. Was her novel the subject of that outstanding oral presentation that he delivered? As he spoke with me, he demonstrated the attentiveness that the best teachers possess. That attentiveness is one of the many qualities that led Corey to win the first Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education back in 2015.

His devotion to his students at Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts is chronicled in the 2015 documentary Purple Dreams, which traces his students’ lives–both on and off stage–as they rehearse and perform the musical The Color Purple, an enormously ambitious project for which their school raised over $170,000  “to take 107 people–cast, crew and orchestra–and rent the original Broadway set and costumes to perform at the International Thespian Festival two years ago [in 2013] in Nebraska” (Toppman par. 9).

In my email to Corey, I wrote: “As a teacher, I am always grateful to witness my students’ achievements in the classroom and beyond. Congratulations for all that you have accomplished, and thank you for all that you have given back.” I tried to say that again tonight as I left the rehearsal hall, but what came out was simply “I’m so proud of you!”

As I drove home, my thoughts turned to one of Stephen Sondheim’s anecdotes about his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein:

Just before he [Hammerstein] died, he gave me a picture of himself, and I asked him to inscribe it, which is sort of odd because he was a surrogate father to me. It’s like asking your father to inscribe a picture. He thought for a minute and was clearly a little embarrassed. Then he got a smile on his face like the cat had just eaten the cream. And he wrote something. And when he left the room, I read it. And it said, ‘For Stevie, my friend and teacher.’

Corey, this former teacher of yours, just three years your senior, isn’t your mentor or your surrogate mother. But these reflections are a portrait inscribed to you, “To my teacher.”

Lucas, Jane. “Corey Mitchell.” Received by Pamela Livingstone. 15 July 2019.

—. “Greetings from a Proud Teacher.” Received by Corey Mitchell. 17 July 2019.

Sondheim, Stephen. “To Me, Teaching is a Sacred Profession.” Sondheim on Sondheim. P.S. Classics, 2010.

Toppman,  Lawrence. “Charlotte Teacher Wins Tony Award.”, Accessed 15 Aug. 2015.

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